What You Should Know:
– In the summer of 2022, WittKieffer emailed an online survey to thousands of healthcare C-suite executives of a range of titles at leading hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers, medical groups and other provider organizations. The survey asked questions about feelings of burnout in leaders’ lives and at work as well as the professional impact of the global pandemic.
– A total of 233 healthcare executives, including 63 CEOs, completed the survey. Of these leaders, 64% were men and 34% women; 88% identified themselves as White or Caucasian, with 5% Black or African American and 2% Hispanic or Latino.
The findings and key insights are discussed down below.
Analyzing How Burnout Impacts Healthcare
Burnout is often used as a catchall for the many permutations that come from working too hard, too long, often in frustrating and even distressing conditions. It can encapsulate chronic stress, exhaustion, anger, feelings of inefficacy, hopelessness, even moral injury. It’s often many of these things wrapped up into one. Burnout is not a perfect word but it seems the most appropriate moniker for what ails many healthcare executives today. To preface their survey, WittKieffer provided respondents with the Mayo Clinic’s definition of burnout, specifically job burnout: “clinically defined as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”
1. Insight Into Burnout
WittKieffer were surprised to find that only 74% of their sample experienced burnout over the prior six months; they had fully expected a higher number, given the challenges these executives are facing. The overall percentage of burned out executives, however, has climbed substantially since 2018 wherein the great majority of them are concerned about the impact that burnout is having on their organizations. This concern has not only risen since 2018 but is felt even by a strong majority of executives who are not personally experiencing burnout; though those with burnout are understandably more conscious of the negative impact. This executive captured the general tenor of the comments: “The wins are fewer and farther apart than what was possible just a few short years ago. Emotional and physical fatigue are nonstop. Healthcare is on the brink of disaster as the workforce dwindles yet community needs arise. And the ability to have a reasonable and healthy margin to continue operations and serve the needs of all is just not sustainable.”
2. Pandemic Pressures
Covid-19 added unprecedented challenges and stressors within healthcare. Executives were left to establish and staff Covid command centers, wade through complex and shifting government regulations and stimulus funding requirements, navigate supply shortages and group purchasing contracts, and orchestrate nearly nonstop communication with their boards, leadership teams, clinicians, staff and the government. “The pandemic created a sense of doubt that I have had trouble shaking,” said one CEO frankly. “I felt frustrated about my leadership in a world constantly changing. I’ve also developed anxiety through the pandemic. The amount of worry has become overwhelming.” But the pandemic’s undeniable impact only accelerated the strain of long-standing issues within the industry – issues that organizations had been dealing with for years. Indeed, most executives – regardless of burnout – felt their organizations dealt appropriately with the pandemic. 76% of all respondents strongly agreed that the response actions taken by their Organization during the pandemic were reasonable and appropriate. Of those, 72% report that they’re burned out.
3. Productivity and Persistence
When people are burned out, they tend to feel less effective, which leads to pessimism, which then spirals into a negative and self-destructive cycle. Multiple infographics in the report reveal that those struggling with burnout tended to be less positive than those who weren’t experiencing burnout personally. It was surprising, however, that most executives experiencing burnout were still feeling a level of productivity and confidence, despite their burnout. They still express determination to make a difference, continuing to demonstrate the sense of purpose and mission that drew them to healthcare in the first place. The levels at which burned out executives experience these positive emotions, however, are notably lower than their peers – and likely to drop further without intervention.
4. The Next Career Step
Out of a sense of duty and purpose, many executives stuck with their organizations during the Covid-19 pandemic, but lately, we have seen a wave of retirements of prominent leaders across healthcare. Those experiencing burnout are much more likely to be considering a move. “I have chosen to resign from my current role in order to better navigate a more reasonable work/ life balance,” said one executive. “I will continue to contribute positively to my organization and work to have true success and professional gratification in my roles going forward.” Healthcare leaders by their nature tend to be resilient and resolute. They entered the profession with a mindset to make a difference in the world. That hope is still present in those burned out – but at strikingly lower levels. The combination of ongoing crises and disruptive business model change requires executives to deliver positive outcomes for their patients, staffs and institutions while simultaneously transforming them. This, in turn, requires a broader mindset, more varied skills and a more nuanced and effective use of executive teams to span the broad range of paradoxes to manage. Doing these things while experiencing burnout, and the accompanying decrease in confidence, agency and belief, is simply too much to ask.