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How to Fight Physician Executive Burnout

Jackson Physician Search
November 29, 2022

Healthcare experts often point to rising physician burnout as the root cause of broader industry issues such as high physician turnover, low retention rates, and long recruitment cycles. When burned-out physicians opt to leave their jobs, it can cost their employers millions in lost opportunity and recruitment expenses. The cost to patients can be even greater, as studies indicate that physicians suffering from burnout are more likely to make mistakes.   

The negative impact of physician burnout is clear, but physicians aren’t the only healthcare professionals suffering from the physical and mental exhaustion that characterizes burnout. According to a September 2022 MGMA Stat Poll, 80% of healthcare leaders, including physician executives, report increased stress or burnout over the previous year. In contrast, an MGMA poll from four years earlier found that less than half (48%) of healthcare leaders reported feeling burned out. Of course, after a global pandemic and widespread staffing shortages, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that healthcare executives report increased burnout. But while the industry acknowledges and attempts to address the problem of physician burnout, the impact of burnout among physician executives and other healthcare leaders is less clear. The question remains, how is burnout among these leaders impacting organizations, and what can be done to mitigate the problem? 

3 Ways to Mitigate Burnout Among Physician Executives

We know burnout drives physician turnover, so it follows that burnout among physician executives contributes to increased executive turnover. This certainly seemed to be the case earlier this year. The monthly Challenger CEO Report, which documents turnover among CEOs in the US, showed record numbers of hospital CEOs leaving their jobs in the first few months of 2022. Fortunately, those figures stabilized in the latter part of the year, and yet, the challenge of developing and retaining healthcare and physician leaders remains. In an industry plagued with financial, regulatory, and staffing challenges, attracting and retaining leaders who are willing and able to take on these obstacles is an ongoing problem. 

Healthcare leaders face monumental challenges that make it especially challenging to remain motivated and engaged. For this reason, organizations must find ways to better support physician executives and healthcare leaders, and the leaders themselves must employ strategies to ward off the feelings of fatigue, self-doubt, and lack of empathy associated with burnout. Keep reading for three areas of focus for individuals battling burnout.  

1. Prioritize Wellness (and Sleep)

With Millennials now accounting for more than a third of the workforce, the values associated with their generation, such as personal wellness, work-life balance, and collaboration, are increasingly important. This is true across industries, demonstrated by the rise of Chief Wellness Officers at organizations globally. The healthcare industry is not exempt from these shifting priorities. According to a joint Jackson Physician Search and MGMA study, Back from Burnout: Confronting the Post-Pandemic Physician Turnover Crisis, physicians rank work-life balance among the top factors contributing to job satisfaction. In a study exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the physician job market, recruitment leaders at Jackson Physician Search reported a spike in candidates entering a job search in search of a better work-life balance.  

What is true for clinical physicians is also true for physician executives and healthcare leaders. Time away from work is essential. Studies show that adequate sleep is also critical in battling burnout. In fact, a key takeaway from an American College of Healthcare Executive study in the Journal of Healthcare Management was the importance of sleep in the reduction of burnout.    

Takeaway: Healthcare leaders and physician executives must obtain adequate sleep and take advantage of paid time off and flexible schedules to counteract burnout. Organizations should incorporate wellness into the culture by offering flexible schedules, encouraging employees to take time off, and developing programs to improve the physical and emotional health of employees. 

2. Seek External Collaboration 

Healthcare leaders face significant challenges — financial, staffing, and regulatory. This is true for organizations large and small, urban and rural, private and public. Instead of fighting the battles from the silo of a single organization, leaders will benefit from exchanging ideas, sharing triumphs and failures, and collaborating with other organizations. The state of Michigan demonstrates how this type of collaboration improves patient care and lowers costs. According to a Harvard Business Review article, a consortium that began with five hospitals grew to include fifty organizations sharing information about how they treated cardiovascular disease. This transparency led to improvements in the quality of care and a reduction in costs, complications, and readmissions. The success of the BCM2 led to more collaborative quality initiatives in the state, where the costs of care are now among the lowest in the country. 

Michigan proves collaboration benefits the broader industry, but it follows that a collaborative approach to problem-solving would also benefit the industry’s physician leaders by alleviating pressure and expanding their toolbox. For this reason, collaboration is high on the list of ways to combat executive burnout.  

Takeaway: Don’t face challenges alone. With respect for your organization’s information-sharing policies, seek allies at competing organizations to identify mutual challenges and develop solutions. This collaborative approach to problem-solving — at both the individual and organizational levels — can help everyone involved keep feelings of burnout at bay. 

3. Embrace a Purpose and Growth Mindset

An analysis of the ACHE study noted that lower professional fulfillment scores correlated with higher levels of burnout, indicating physician executives and healthcare leaders who feel their work is meaningful are less likely to experience burnout. For this reason, it’s imperative that these leaders find ways to stay connected to their broader purpose and focus on the ways the work they do contributes to their communities. 

Self-valuation is also factored into an individual’s level of burnout. The study identifies self-valuation as a measure of one’s tendency to respond to personal imperfections with the desire to learn and improve rather than with self-disparagement. Individuals responding with the former, often referenced as a “growth mindset,” reported lower levels of burnout. 

Takeaway: If healthcare executives hope to avoid burnout, they must adopt a growth mindset and find ways to stay connected to their broader purpose. Organizations should develop a culture in which employees are encouraged to learn from failure. The mission and impact of the organization on the surrounding community should be woven into the culture as well. 

Healthcare leaders, including physician executives, have spent nearly three years facing unprecedented circumstances, not to mention the longstanding issues that plague the industry. Rising burnout among leaders, while not surprising, must not be dismissed. Just as physician burnout has a rippling impact on the broader industry, burnout among healthcare leaders is also detrimental. While the solution to burnout is complicated and requires organizational intervention, leaders who prioritize wellness, collaborate with peers, adopt a growth mindset, and reconnect with their purpose may fare better than their peers. 

If physician recruitment challenges are contributing to your stress and burnout, reach out to the Search Consultants at Jackson Physician Search to learn how we can alleviate the burdensome tasks of physician recruitment.

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