The Role of Leadership in Reducing Physician Burnout

I’m fortunate to sit on our residency leadership committee at Lehigh Valley Health Network and attend conferences where we discuss a wide range of physician leadership topics. A common topic is physician burnout and what healthcare leaders can do to mitigate it. At a recent meeting, we discussed an article from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings titled “Executive Leadership and Physician Well-being: Nine Organizational Strategies to Promote Engagement and Reduce Burnout.” The authors, Tait D. Shanafelt, MD and John H. Noseworthy, MD, cite evidence suggesting that physicians who spend just 20% of their professional activities focused on the work they find most meaningful are at a dramatically lower risk for burnout. There was also a ceiling effect to this benefit at 20%, meaning that physicians who spend 50% of their time in the area most meaningful to them had no further decrease in burnout rate.

This principle has an interesting parallel in the technology industry which was hard to ignore when researching this topic. Years ago, Google instituted a policy in which their employees would spend 80% of their time working on what Google told them to do and the other 20% working on projects they were passionate about. In that industry, there are strong opinions on both sides regarding whether or not this is actually a good management practice. However, there is little doubt that it has encouraged employees to be more creative and innovative as major product developments including Gmail have been created as a result of the policy.

I find this information striking for two reasons. For one, spending just 1/5th of your work time on what you find to be most meaningful seems like such a small amount of time; but also, this information gives leaders a relatively easy way to reduce burnout among the physicians they manage. But first, leaders need to make the effort to understand what motivates each of the physicians they manage and physicians themselves need to recognize what they enjoy most and advocate for more time dedicated to it. Some physicians may have an interest in caring for specific types of patients, such as the under-served while others enjoy engaging in education, quality improvement, community outreach or mentorship. Once physicians pinpoint what is most meaningful to them, they can work together with their leadership to more easily identify professional opportunities that increase the time spent in their area of interest.

For me personally, I genuinely enjoy being an involved member of several committees both internally in my residency and externally on the state and national level. While the time spent on these activities is minuscule compared to my regular resident duties, the variety it adds to my schedule has promoted better focus in my clinical work and greater overall enjoyment of my residency. I’m fortunate to have the support of my program directors in all of these endeavors. Leaders who do not make use of this principle are missing opportunities to increase professional development, foster engagement and decrease burnout among the physicians they lead. In my opinion, this data is something that all of us should keep in mind. Happier, more motivated, and multi-talented physicians will make for a better workplace environment and most importantly, the best possible outcomes for patients.
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