What Is the Level of Stress in Your Medical Practice?

August 14, 2013

Higher rates of medical staff turnover are most likely related to workplace stress. What can you do to help?

According to a recent survey by CareerBuilder.com, heavy patient loads, smaller staffs, and higher stress levels may be causing healthcare workers to look for other jobs. More than a third (34 percent) of surveyed healthcare workers plan to look for a new job in 2013, up from 24 percent last year. Eighty-two percent said that while they are not actively looking for a job today, they would be open to a new position if they came across the right opportunity.

One of the problems leading to this unrest is the increasingly common complaint about the level of work-related stress in today's nonstop, high-volume practices (one which is expected to increase next year). It affects the disposition and productivity of everyone in the practice: leading employees to grow increasingly negative about their jobs; be late for work; and call in sick more often. Such burned-out employees can also be irritable toward coworkers, doctors, even patients.

The first step in preventing work-related stress is to understand what causes it. The following are several stress-inducing scenarios commonly found in physicians' practices:

1. Work overload. With an ever-increasing need for greater productivity and cost containment, it's not uncommon to hear front-desk personnel, for example, complain about the nonstop pressure to keep up with the barrage of telephone calls, arriving and departing patients, appointment scheduling, updating of records and insurance information, and often more. Such receptionists even with best of intentions can end up performing poorly, creating chaos at the front desk and alienating patients.

One solution is to reconfigure the front desk. Divide the responsibilities. If the volume of phone calls warrants it, have one (or more) telephone operators (in a separate area away from the front desk); a receptionist to greet patients and check them in; another to handle the check-out process and collect copays. Electronic health records will also speed things up.

2. Role conflict. Being given work tasks without sufficient resources to complete them is an example of role conflict. Office equipment that's not where you need it or available when you need it or (worse) badly in need of repair or (even worse) needs to be replaced, are problems that are commonly heard and can lead to stress - especially if the problem has been reported to management and nothing has been done about it.

When physicians are reluctant to invest in needed office equipment, it ends up costing them because front-line staff can't function effectively.

3. Role ambiguity. Employees who experience role ambiguity aren't sure of the scope and responsibilities of their job: what their coworkers, office manager, or doctors expect of them, and the standards by which their work will be evaluated. For many, this uncertainty or "working in the dark," as one medical assistant expressed it, is a source of stress and job dissatisfaction.

Written and updated job descriptions and periodic performance reviews are the solution to this problem.

4. Hard-learned lessons about retention. Candid, one-on-one conversations with employees can uncover what they like best and least about their jobs, and what, if possible, they'd like to change. Flexibility on management's part can very often smooth things out.

Exit interviews with departing employees can pinpoint deficiencies in the practice that have been underestimated or overlooked.

A low-stress office is more productive and more pleasant for everyone: employees, doctors, and patients.

Bob Levoy is the author of seven books on human resource and practice management topics. His newest book is "222 Secrets of Hiring, Managing and Retaining Great Employees in Healthcare Practices" published by Jones & Bartlett. He can be reached at blevoy@verizon.net