5 Ways to Restore Depleted Health Care Workers – Harvard Business Review


As the pandemic drags on and on, worker burnout continues to be a crisis at health care systems. But there are proven strategies that health systems can use to mitigate the physical and emotional depletion that their employees are suffering. This article offers five. They are derived from the authors’ interviews with health care leaders, their own collective experiences in quality improvement, critical care medicine, and physician leadership, and research on burnout that they and others have conducted.
Even before the pandemic, burnout among health care workers was well documented. The pandemic turned it into a crisis. A key component of burnout is depletion, which is characterized by feeling physically and emotionally drained, just barely hanging on — like the ICU nurse who sits in her car outside the hospital and texts a friend, “I don’t think I can make it through another shift.”
But leaders of health care providers can do a lot to combat this problem. By implementing a variety of approaches, they can restore their workers’ physical and emotional reserves, sense of self, and trust in the organization that employs them. We have identified five effective strategies that some organizations have adopted. They are derived from our interviews with leaders of health care systems, our collective experiences in quality improvement, critical care medicine, and physician leadership, and research on burnout that we and others have conducted.
Well-executed, team-based care honors clinicians’ level of training and reduces the time and effort clinicians spend on the administrative tasks that they so often find physically and emotionally depleting. Here are approaches that some organizations have taken:
Health care workers’ emotional well-being depends on robust support from their employer, including an institutional commitment to protecting their physical safety and economic security. During the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, for example, Torrance Memorial Medical Center committed to a no-layoffs policy, which persists today. Some staff from shut-down procedural areas served as screeners for visitors and made face shields and hand sanitizers. Nearly 700 other staff were sent home but received 50% of their pay — and assurance that their jobs would return. Torrance also has strict policies forbidding abusive behavior toward staff. It requires offending patients to sign a contract not to do so again in the future, and it is enforced.
Although temporary furloughs were necessary at Henry Ford Health System, it established a Covid-19 employee relief fund that accepted monetary donations for fellow coworkers in need. Senior leaders donated 10% to 25% of their salary to the fund. Some 92% of furloughed employees were eventually brought back.
Being a reliable advocate could also mean giving clinicians the time and space to replenish themselves during lulls in the pandemic just as the U.S. military gives its personnel periods of reprieve from active duty. In health care, reprieves could include leaves of absence, temporary role changes, and reduced hours. Current health care workforce shortages are likely to worsen without such respites.
Mayo Clinic has invested heavily in selecting and developing leaders who seek to combat depletion with kindness. Leaders are assessed annually with a survey, of all 73,000 staff, on five kindness-fostering behaviors:
The survey questions and results are shared with leaders at all levels to inform their daily practice. Published research from Mayo Clinic shows that leading with these five acts of kindness was associated with greater employee satisfaction and fulfillment and lower levels of burnout among staff at all levels.
It’s essential for leaders to recognize and invest in mitigating the relentless stress of health care work, today more than ever. Providence — a health care system based in Renton, Washington, that has 52 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics in seven states — has taken various steps to mitigate emotional depletion. They include:
Rushing clinical interactions with patients has both human and financial costs. When clinicians are hurried, they may miss pertinent information, potentially rendering the treatment plan they recommend less effective. Compressed encounters may mean clinicians don’t have the necessary time to correct disinformation or misinformation that may be influencing patients. Given the questioning of the Covid-19 vaccines that continue to occur, giving clinicians time to cultivate patients’ trust is especially important in the campaign to improve vaccination rates.
Health care systems that focus too narrowly on getting the most productivity possible out of each clinician risk depriving patients and their care teams of what matters most: a trusting, collaborative therapeutic relationship. Placing primary value on productivity is shortsighted, disempowers patients, and ultimately depletes clinicians by diminishing their joy in work. Simple acts of connection and kindness can change the tenor of care for both parties, but administrators must value these acts and bake compassion into the design of the work, as these health care systems have done:
With the kind of multipronged approach that we’ve described, health care systems can mitigate their workers’ physical and emotional depletion, reduce burnout and turnover, and improve patient care. At a time when so much of society is unwilling to take basic steps to reduce risks to public health, these workers consistently prioritize patients’ needs above their own. Especially given the considerable personal sacrifices that their workers are making, health care systems have an obligation to take care of them.
The authors thank Steven Bird, Ruth Chang, Cynthia Lasecki, Jonathan Leighton, Jennifer Perkins, Arpan Waghray, and Jeremiah Hargrave for the valuable information they shared in interviews.

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