Recently I was scrolling through posts from a physician leadership Facebook group. I came upon one that caught my eye. It said something like, “Does anyone have information I can share with my radiologists to show them the impact of working through lunch?”
I was happy to see a post that focused on physician well-being. A leader who cares enough and wants her physicians to take a break. And then it occurred to me. Maybe there is a better question this leader could be asking. Maybe the deeper question is, “Why do my doctors feel they don’t have time to eat lunch?” Most people know that a lunch break is a good idea. But when you feel like your house is on fire, it’s hard to stop for nourishment.
It’s inspiring to see the increasing focus on well-being in health care. But what’s the best approach? Sometimes I think of us as frogs in the proverbial pot of water that is slowly heating up. What are our options? We either jump out of the pot, develop thicker skin to manage the heat, or lower the heat. This analogy doesn’t exactly hold up because I think the goal of the pot is to make the frog into a soup, and in that case, as frog advocates we would encourage the frog to hop out. Our mission in health care is too important to abandon the pot. But how do we achieve it without killing ourselves? If we all jump out, the consequences are massive. The recent nurse’s strike in NYC was an example of that. I don’t know the details of the strike, but the nurses were essentially demanding the flame be turned down before they hopped back in the pot.
What we need is a two-pronged approach to supporting well-being in health care.
1. To health care leaders: Make well-being a priority. In 2022, the Surgeon General gave an advisory addressing health worker burnout. The report calls for systemic change and calls on health care organizations, insurers, government, tech companies, and accreditation boards to remove administrative burdens and barriers with the goal of supporting all health care workers.
Put this report into action. You cannot squeeze your physicians any harder. We are used to pushing ourselves hard, but soon we will break. It’s time for every organization to take wellness seriously. Hire a chief wellness officer and adopt the quadruple aim. Ensure that the well-being of your clinicians and other employees is equally important to that of quality, data, and operations in your company’s success. Your doctors are mission-driven and will work more efficiently when you put systems in place that support us instead of bogging us down. Remove our obstacles and see what we can do for you. In reality, thriving physicians lead to a thriving company with improved retention and patient outcomes.
2. To the physicians: Don’t lose hope. Advocate for yourself and protect yourself. Physicians sometimes criticize the focus on self-care and point to the system as the only problem. Fix the system, and we’ll all be just fine. I’ve heard the argument that focusing on self-care is like taking Tylenol when someone hits you with a hammer. If you could stop the pounding, you wouldn’t need Tylenol. That may be true. However, whether or not meaningful change is coming is not really in our day-to-day control. As physicians, we should absolutely demand and fight for the changes that are needed in health care, but the wheels of change move slowly. So since we can’t fully move out of the way of the hammer pounding on our heads right now, I recommend putting on a helmet so you can continue to work while the wheels of change slowly lessen the pounding we are receiving. That helmet includes a set of skills that will be useful in all aspects of life (practice mindfulness, build resilience, focus on purpose and power, set boundaries, and take lunch!). If you want to continue practicing medicine in this environment, develop these skills. They will help improve your well-being. But don’t be afraid to get out if things become too much for you. Making a change is not a failure on your part. It is brave. There is no shame in doing what is best for you.
The optimist in me believes that we are progressing on both of these fronts. We have a long way to go, but our mission in health care is too great for us to give up.
Jennifer Shaer is a pediatrician and chief wellness officer, Allied Physicians Group, and a certified executive and life coach. She is founder, Shaer Coaching, and can be reached on Facebook. She is available for one-on-one coaching and speaking engagements: Feel free to schedule a conversation with Dr. Shaer or reach out by email.