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Moving Beyond Wellness Programs: Three Steps to Addressing Employee Burnout at Health Systems

By Melinda Thiel and Raphaela F. O’Day

Burnout and disengagement are deeply impacting clinicians and health system employees across the country. Some reports suggest that over 50 percent of health care professionals[1] – particularly those in front-line surgical specialties, such as trauma and general surgery[2] – are experiencing symptoms of burnout. In fact, the World Health Organization has recently determined that burnout is an “occupational phenomenon.”[3]

Recognizing this still-growing challenge, health systems are starting to act. Eighty-nine percent of health system leaders report their health system is driving efforts to address burnout and workforce needs, according to the Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies’ second annual survey conducted among OR clinicians and health system executives.[4] However, implementing a successful program to address workforce wellness and health requires a thoughtful, tailored solution – particularly at health systems. To deliver success, it is critically important that solutions go beyond employee wellness and address the root causes of burnout and disengagement that are particularly relevant to clinicians working at the frontline of patient care, including compassion fatigue, emotional stress, cumbersome organizational processes and the burden of administrative tasks.

Here are three steps to tailor employee engagement programs effectively for health systems:

Step 1. Recognize the unique challenges front-line care providers face

As head surgical nurse and perioperative administrator for more than two decades, Barbara Trattler says she, “loved every minute of the job,” but it took a toll – she saw her family too little, rarely exercised, slept poorly and suffered from stress-induced migraines.[5] Nurses, like Trattler, are found to be experiencing compassion fatigue, a manifestation of the challenges of working in the health profession. These include physical (“just plain worn out”) and emotional (“walking on a tightrope”) symptoms as well as various triggering factors (“an unbearable weight on shoulder”).[6] The result can be the inability to care well for others, leading to disengagement, burnout and increased numbers leaving the profession.[7] And it’s not just nurses. “As physicians, we’re taught that work is a marathon and we must pace ourselves,” explains Eric F. Stamler, MD FACOG, a practicing OBGYN in Cincinnati, Ohio.[8] “But extended periods of high workloads or stress is not sustainable and can lead to burnout and energy loss that profoundly affects our personal and professional lives.” Apart from physical and emotional factors, “too much time spent on bureaucratic tasks” and “EHR or other IT tools hurt my efficiency” were also found to be top contributors to burnout.[9]

Step 2. Consider that burnout has physical, intellectual and emotional aspects

Employee engagement programs that address the variety of drivers and consequences of burnout – physical, mental, organizational – are more likely to be successful. A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion is the first to demonstrate that a short, intensive workplace wellness intervention can produce sustained improvements in quality of life and wellbeing.[10] In addition to addressing physical well-being (i.e., nutrition, exercise, sleep and movement), the 2.5 day intervention focuses on behavioral changes to holistically manage energy and maximize purpose, including training on defining purpose, facing the truth and tactics to handle setbacks.

Step 3. Adapt your employee engagement program to address all dimensions of your workforce’s health and wellbeing needs

Organizations hoping to address burnout should recognize the many factors associated with the problem. Our research suggests that these should include four categories: the health and wellbeing of individual employees, the organizational environment, the interpersonal interactions and relationships of employees within the workplace as well as employee professional fulfillment.[11] Employee engagement programs must acknowledge that employee health and wellness is not one-dimensional. Even though many health care organizations have made personalized solutions like mindfulness training, massage, yoga, or one-on-one coaching available, clinicians don’t make use of these because they feel pressed for time or that their daily work frustrations are being overlooked.[12] There are multiple drivers of burnout, and addressing just one of them – for example, just the physical – will only have limited impact.

This approach holds the promise to achieve healthier outcomes for health system employees, as well as patients, who will benefit from clinicians working to their fullest ability. At the Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies, we’ve developed our Healthy Workforce offerings specifically for health care with the multi-faceted nature of burnout in mind. It is designed to reduce clinician burnout through comprehensive employee engagement strategies that can lead to increased vitality, improved purpose and greater health and wellbeing for employees. Employee engagement programs have great potential to address clinician burnout – however, to be successful, health system leaders should take these three steps into account to develop the best program for their workforce and organization.

Melinda Thiel is the vice president, health system value transformation, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices Companies. Raphaela F. O’Day, Ph.D., is the senior performance coach and innovation catalyst, Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions.




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