Hospitalist leader: Are you burned out? Are you resilient?

Demonstrate care about the professional and personal well-being of your team


I had the privilege of teaching two seminars at the recent Society of Hospital Medicine Leadership Academy in Scottsdale, Ariz. The theme of my second seminar was “Swarm Leadership,” the topic of my September column. There seemed to be enthusiasm and interest in the topic. Participants were intrigued at the notion of leveraging instinctual responses to encourage team spirit and collective outcomes.

The key principles of these swarm-like behaviors are: 1) unity of mission, 2) generosity of spirit, 3) staying in lanes and helping others succeed in theirs, 4) no ego/no blame, and 5) a foundation of trust among those working together. Leaders create the conditions in which these behaviors are more likely to emerge. The resulting team spirit and productivity raise morale and increase the sense of work-related purpose and mission.

Leonard J. Marcus, PhD, director of the program for health care negotiation and conflict resolution, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dr. Leonard J. Marcus

Despite the interest in the topic, an underlying objection arose in questions and comments. These remarks countered the intentions and opportunities for swarm-like connectivity.

People expressed their sense of being burned out and overworked, even to the extent of being exploited. I was stunned at the prevalence of this sensation in the room. Not everyone spoke though many people identified with the theme.

What I heard was enough to raise the question here: For hospitalist leaders, to what extent is burnout significant enough to give it serious attention? (I want to be abundantly clear: I report observations as anecdotal and impressionistic. There is no implied critique of hospitalists on the whole nor any individual or groups.)

Burnout includes sensations of being exhausted, overburdened, underappreciated, undercompensated, cynical, and depressed. These phenomena together can affect your productivity, the quality of your work, and your endurance when the workload gets tough.

By contrast, the opposite of burnout is balance, including sensations of being engaged, enthusiastic, energetic, absorbed, challenged, and dedicated. Work is part of the equilibrium you establish in your life, which includes a variety of fulfilling and motivating experiences and accomplishments.

Ideal balance would have all the different parts of your life – from family to hobbies to work – in perfect synergy with one another. Complete burnout would have all parts of your life imploding on one another, with little room for joy, personal contentment, and professional satisfaction.

How do you assess the differences between burnout and balance? First, this is a very individual metric. What one person might consider challenging and engaging another would experience as overwhelming and alienating. When you assess a group of people, these differences are important and could inform how work assignments and heavy lifting are assigned.

During the SHM session and in private comments, people described this rise in burnout not as a personal phenomena. Rather, it results from the health system expecting more of hospitalists than they can reasonably and reliably produce. People described hospitalists getting to the breaking point with no relief in sight. What can be done about this phenomenon?

First, hold a mirror up to yourself. You cannot help others as a leader if you are not clear with your own state of burnout and balance. The questions for you – a leader of other hospitalists – include: To what extent are you burned out? If so, why? If not, why not? If you were to draw a continuum between burned out and balanced, where on that range would you place yourself? Where would others in your group or department pinpoint themselves, relative to one another, on this continuum?

How might burnout develop for hospitalist leaders? Like a car, even a high performance vehicle, you can only go so fast and so far. Push too hard on the accelerator and the vehicle begins to shake as performance declines. If your system is expecting the pace and productivity to outstrip what you consider reasonable, your performance, job satisfaction and morale drops. Impose those demands upon a group of people and the unhappiness can become infectious.

With a decline in performance comes a decline in confidence. You and your colleagues strive for top-rate outcomes. Fatigue, pressure, and unreasonable expectations challenge your ability to feel good about what you are doing. That satisfaction is part of why you chose hospital medicine and without it, you wonder about what you are doing and why you are doing it.

When you and your colleagues sense that you are unappreciated, it can spark a profound sense of disappointment. That realization could express itself in many forms, including unhappiness about pay and workload to dissatisfaction with professional support or acknowledgment. When the system on the whole is driving so fast that it cannot stop to ensure and reward good work, the rattling can have a stunting effect on performance.

When I first began teaching at SHM conferences and had hospitalists in my classes at the Harvard School of Public Health – way back when – the field was novel, revolutionary, and striving to establish a newly effective and efficient way to provide patient services. It is useful to keep these roots in perspective – hospital medicine over the arc of time – from what WAS, to what IS and eventually what WILL BE. The cleverness of hospitalist leaders has been their capacity to understand this evolution and work with it. Hospitalist medicine built opportunities in response to high costs, the lack of continuity of care, and problems of communication. It was a solution.

How might you diagnose your burnout – and that of others with whom you work – in order to build solutions? Is it a phenomenon that involves just several individuals or is it characteristic of your group as a whole? What are the causes? What are the symptoms and what are the core issues? Some are system problems in which expectations for performance – and the resources to meet those objectives – are not reasonably aligned. There is a cost for trying to reduce costs on the backs of overworked clinicians.

If this is more than an individual problem, systematically ask the question and seek systematic answers. The better you document root causes and implications, the better are you able to make a data-driven case for change. Interview, survey, and with all this, you demonstrate your concern for staff, their work, and their work experience.

Showing that you care about the professional and personal well-being and balance of your workforce, in and of itself, is the beginning of an intervention. Be honest with yourself about your own experience. And then be open to the experiences of others. As a leader, your colleagues may suggest changes you make in your own leadership that could ameliorate some of that burnout. Better communication? Improved organization? Enhanced flexibility as appropriate? These are problems you can fix.

Other solutions must be negotiated with others on the systems level. With documentation in hand, build your case for the necessary changes, whatever that might entail. Hospitalist leaders negotiated their way into respected and productive positions in the health care system. Similarly, they must negotiate the right balance now to ensure the quality, morale, and reasonable productivity of their departments and workforce.

As a hospitalist leader, you know that each day will bring its complexities, challenges, and at times, its burdens. Your objective is to encourage – for yourself, for your colleagues, and for your system – resilience that is both personal and organizational. That resilience – the ability to take a hit and bounce back – is an encouraging signal of hope and recovery, for your workforce as well as the people for whom you care. The principles of swarm leadership – reinvigorated for your group – could very well provide signposts on that everyday quest for personal and group resilience.

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