It's maddening. It's exhausting. And it's only getting worse. Healthcare reform initiatives, reimbursement cuts, and economic angst are contributing to a spike in physician stress levels across all specialties. A 2011 survey by Physician Wellness Services and Cejka Search, in fact, found more than 80 percent of U.S.-based physicians are moderately to severely stressed or burned-out on a given day. Another two-thirds say their stress level has increased moderately to dramatically in the past three years, yet only 15 percent say their organizations are doing anything to help them deal with workplace pressure more effectively.
That's a recipe for disaster, says Liz Ferron, a senior consultant for Physician Wellness Services, a company that helps practices create a healthier work environment. "We really encourage organizations to look at physicians as a precious resource," she says. "Consider the unique pressures they are under today, the time they take away from their families to do good work, and their level of education and expertise. We need to be asking what they need and what we can do to help."
It's not just the providers who suffer; the drive to deliver more care in less time has been linked to lower patient satisfaction scores and higher incidence of diagnostic errors. While you can't hope to eliminate stress factors for your physicians entirely, there's plenty you can do to soften the blow. From taking busy work off physicians' plates to scheduling for better work-life balance to providing support mechanisms to help them cope, a culture of compassion can prevent everyday stress from becoming a personal crisis.
Prolonged exposure to workplace stress can result in emotional exhaustion, loss of empathy, depression, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment. It can also manifest in physical symptoms such as lower back pain, headaches, and high blood pressure. When you see such symptoms on display, says Linda Stiles, administrator for Pacifica Institute of Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery in Camarillo, Calif., intervene without delay. "Sit down and talk openly with your physicians about what you've observed and what changes you can make, if any, to alleviate the problem," she says. If the source of stress is related to work flow, ask them to brainstorm solutions and solve the problem together.
"Maybe they're doing more than they should have to be doing because someone else is not picking up the slack," says Donna Knapp, a consultant with Medical Group Management Association Health Care Consulting Group. "If your medical assistant isn't rooming patients quickly enough, for example, the doctor may start rooming them to get their day done. That's something they shouldn't have to do."
If a physician's source of angst is external, on the other hand, such as a family illness or pending divorce, you might instead refer that provider to an employee wellness program, offered by many private consultants, health insurance plans, and local hospitals. Your medical society may also offer seminars on coping skills and resilience techniques including mindfulness meditation. "You have to be an advocate for your physicians and your staff," says Stiles.
Just be sure that any relief initiatives you enact are supportive in nature. It should never be punitive, says Ferron. Except under the most extreme circumstances, demanding that your stressed-out surgeon take time off is typically not the solution. "A heavy-handed approach with this group is not going to work," says Ferron. "It must come from a place of support. Tell them that the work they do for your practice is so valuable that you want to have a lasting relationship and also create a culture of safety. Ask what you can do as the manager to help them maintain a positive relationship with their patients, staff, and people around them."