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How to navitgate physician burnout with purpose and clarity


44 percent of doctors report burnout, with 15 percent reporting colloquial or clinical depression.


Physician burnout is rapidly increasing. According to an American Medical Association survey, 44 percent of doctors and physicians experience burnout, with 15 percent saying they experienced colloquial or clinical forms of depression.

A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can quickly put patients, doctors, employees, and shareholders at risk. How a health care organization responds to a crisis can have a long-lasting impact on the organization and its key stakeholders-physicians, leaders, employees, and patients. Establishing a healthy workplace culture that supports physician well-being can significantly improve a hospital or practice’s ability to successfully manage and mitigate risk, sustain trust and loyalty, and ultimately protect the patient population. 

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Identify and Establish a Supportive Workplace Culture

Smart health care organizations looking to engage, retain, and support talented and skilled staff recognize the key role of workplace culture, especially in a dynamic, high-stress environment. Workplace culture is the comprehensive experience employees have in their work environments. Workplace culture impacts how employees show up to work every day and establishes norms for how they interact with one another, their supervisors, and their patients.

Traditional workplace culture is often rooted in hierarchy, authoritative communication, and strict policies. Understanding that employees today demand more from their organizations, that model is now being replaced with a new, modern workplace culture across all industries. Modern workplace cultures engage employees in open dialogue, inspire them to think creatively, empower them to collaborate, and support them through professional and personal wellness journeys.


Understand Your Organization and Burnout 

When thinking about your organization and burnout, it is important to better understand the needs and expectations of current physicians. The world has changed. Physicians now expect more from their workplace than ever before. They expect to be seen, understood, and cared for while keeping their own health, the health of their family, and the health of their patients front of mind. There is also an expectation of transparency in the workplace, which is the gateway to trust. And trust is everything. Especially in a high-stakes environment. 

To gain trust, health care organizations must know who they are and what they stand for and then act accordingly toward their staff, physicians and patients. An organization’s “why”-whether purpose or mission-provides clarity and focus to physicians, leaders, employees, and patients about what the organization stands for and its reason for being. Clear purpose and values establish a strong workplace culture foundation to support team members’ needs and expectations. 

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When health and well-being are priorities for the organization, its words, plans, and actions must reflect the health and well-being of employees, patients, and stakeholders to build and sustain trust internally. Ultimately, the purpose and mission will be foundational building blocks to a workplace culture that establishes trust, integrity, and accountability.

It’s also important for organizations to know and listen to their employees and physicians so they can meet them where they’re at, especially during a crisis situation. Organizations that nurture and proactively manage healthy relationships with employees start from a place of trust and strength in a challenge. That goes a long way in protecting your physicians’ health and well-being in a time of crisis, uncertainty and unpredictability.

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Maintain Workplace Culture in a Crisis

As we are experiencing now, it’s not a matter of if-but when-a crisis will occur. Organizations that prepare and plan are best positioned to respond quickly, minimize the damage or risk, and effectively move forward while living their purpose and mission even during a crisis. It essential to have both a business continuity and crisis communication plan in place to maintain a balanced workplace culture and stay true to the values of the organization in the face of uncertainty. 

Businesses should always ground workplace culture in the company’s purpose, mission, and values. Be clear before a crisis strikes about what the organization stands for and what it’s willing to stand up for. This provides invaluable guidance when making decisions about when to respond, what to say, and which actions should be taken. It also ensures your organization is meeting the rising expectations of employees to make meaningful connections that will provide support in times of crisis. 

Values also play a critical role in shaping workplace culture-especially in times of crisis-by setting clear expectations for how the organization will interact with its employees, partners, and patients, and how physicians are expected to behave in return. Engagement, communication, and collaboration are necessary to build and maintain a modern workplace culture that is grounded in values, supports employees, and is championed by leaders.

Leadership must model the values through both words and actions in internal and external communication. When leadership promotes an organization’s values and models them effectively, it builds trust among physicians and creates the foundation for a modern workplace culture that supports employees. Increased trust results in more committed and engaged physicians who are more likely to embody the values they see reflected in leadership’s behavior and communicate their needs and expectations effectively before experiencing burnout.

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Communicate Consistently and Authentically

Organizations that act with transparency, truth and timeliness are the ones most likely to gain trust and successfully support their employees. Organizations should be open and authentic when communicating with employees in high-stakes, dynamic, and stressful situations. Listen to physicians’ needs and expectations to avoid a tone-deaf response, demonstrate empathy and understanding, and address concerns and questions with compassion. Showing you care is never the wrong move-unless it is insincere.

Staying silent in the face of an issue-such as increasing physician burnout-is one of the biggest mistakes an organization can make. Silence will lead to suspicion and loss of trust. Instead, move quickly to frame the issue and determine a solution. Helping employees understand the issue and the solutions the organization is taking to move forward to benefit employees will minimize speculation and confusion.

Use a multi-channel approach to engage physicians in a variety of ways: online, offline and in-person. Activate feedback loops, like text and phone hotlines and email addresses, that are consistently monitored and managed for real-time information on your physicians’ health and wellbeing. Leaders must know what is on the hearts and minds of physicians during a crisis to effectively maintain a healthy workplace. 

Ayme Zemke, SVP, leads Beehive Client Service and Crisis Communication. She has nearly twenty-four years of strategic communication experience at Twin Cities PR agencies and is a Certified Crisis Communications Leader. She has the unique gift of seeing and understanding people’s needs and making meaningful connections that build trust. Beehive Strategic Communication - a purpose-driven strategic communication firm specializes in crisis and issues management and other services.

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