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Getting Burned-out Medical Practice Staff Back on Track

Getting Burned-out Medical Practice Staff Back on Track

If the loss of enthusiasm and anger outbursts didn't tip you off, then the palpable silence at your staff meeting should have. Your once-diligent employees have officially checked out. And chances are, it's not their fault. "It's an epidemic out there," says Laura Sachs Hills, a practice-management consultant and author of the recently published book "Climbing out of a Rut." "More people are starting to feel like their jobs are just not working for them anymore. They are going through the motions."

Sachs attributes much of today's occupational angst to economic uncertainty. Many fear losing their jobs, she says, forcing them to work harder and stay later to prove their worth. Others are overburdened, doing the work of two or more as practices fail to replace employees lost through attrition. And some simply reach a point in their lives where they no longer feel professionally fulfilled. "When you are younger, you are on an ascent in your career and trying to gain some traction," says Hills. "But once you're in a groove you may look around and assess, 'Is this all there is?'"

Job burnout occurs in all industries, of course, but healthcare workers are particularly prone because they deal day in and day out with patients who are sick, scared, or injured, says Dike Drummond, a family physician who now provides executive coaching through TheHappyMD.com. "Medical offices are inherently stressful," he says. "It's very different than working at a restaurant, for example, where everyone is coming to you to enjoy themselves."

Know it when you see it

You may never be able to rekindle the enthusiasm your employees brought with them on day one, but there are tactics you can deploy to give their batteries a boost. To intervene successfully, however, you must first be able to spot the warning signs.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of burnout include fatigue, poor motivation, irritability, sleep disorders, loss of empathy, depression, and physical complaints including headaches and backaches. While most employees experience one or two such symptoms at some point in their career, burnout is defined as a more chronic condition in which prolonged exposure to stress induces emotional, mental, or physical exhaustion that affects performance.

The prevalence of burnout among physicians has been widely documented. A 2012 Mayo Clinic survey, for example, found that nearly half (45.8 percent) of doctors worldwide are suffering from at least one symptom of burnout, far higher than the results of a 2009 study by Hennepin Healthcare System, which put that number closer to 27 percent. There is less on record about the prevalence of chronic fatigue among support staff, but "no reason to believe it is any less common for receptionists and nurses," says Drummond. Why? Workload has nearly doubled amid increasingly complex billing and compliance requirements. Ironically, exposure to stressed out physicians also plays a part, Drummond says. "Nothing turns staff over like a burned-out doctor," he says. "Burned-out doctors are hard to live with."

Indeed, says Liz Ferron, senior consultant and manager of clinical services at Minneapolis, Minn.-based employee assistance program Physician Wellness Services, provider burnout creates a trickle-down effect. "It hugely impacts the staff, which creates safety concerns," says Ferron. "When you are working with someone who is burned out, particularly a leader of a team like a physician, there is a tendency to avoid them and not communicate with them when you really need to." Nurses and support staff should be a second set of eyes and ears for the physician, which helps improve quality of care, but that effect is lost if everyone is too intimidated to communicate effectively, she says.

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