As physicians, we are seen as leaders whether we like it or not. And as such, we are charged with modeling greatness. But do we? Our training, while teaching us to be experts and authorities, does not teach us how to be leaders.
One thing our training does teach us: self-neglect, self-sacrifice and unrealistic expectation. This is where I believe our training has failed us. For most of us, our training conditioned us to put others before ourselves. It starts with “the patient comes first …” Which is valid, especially because we are often dealing with life and death. However, this unspoken expectation gets generalized very quickly to “your work comes first,” “your charts come first,” “your colleagues come first,” “your children come first,” “your spouse comes first.” Before we realize it, we have lost the “off” button for “others coming first,” and soon we are not even on the list of people to take care. However, it doesn’t end there. We are put in positions of leadership with this mindset, and we ask and expect our team to engage in the same self-neglecting behavior. Then, we wonder why our doctors are not performing to their highest potential. We call them “disruptive” when they decompensate and refuse to acknowledge their state of burnout (much less our own).
How did we get here?
Conditioning, simply put, has created a vicious cycle of doing and calling it “leadership” for decades. Let’s face it, doing has been very effective for most of us in our careers. The more we do, the better we have gotten; the more accolades we received. Our pay, our prestige, and even some awards are predicated on how much we do. However, physicians are not great at simply being. Being is the essence of true leadership. Furthermore, the continuous doing is what leads us to the cycle of burnout.
True leaders don’t neglect themselves
True leaders know that they must take care of themselves for them to lead others effectively. Furthermore, the best leaders also make sure their team is taking care of themselves. As a physician leader, remember that as with the body — when you treat the underlying cause, the system will begin to heal itself, they will begin to take responsibility for their own health and empower the well being of their team.
Similarly, leaders understand the importance of keeping the team healthy and happy. When they value their team members (outwardly, not just in their heads), they will foster a culture that is healthy, happier and more productive. In our industry, we know that healthy, happy doctors translate to better patient care, lower morbidity and mortality and more satisfied patients.
So what is there to do?
The first thing to do is to understand the nature of burnout as it relates to leadership. Understanding that burnout is not a problem but a perplexity, and the way to begin to improve the well-being of our doctors is create structures that support and pull for the welfare of people working inside of the system; that is the physician leaders, frontline doctors, administrators, and staff. Executives and physician leaders need to be educated and empowered as much as do frontline physicians.
Physician burnout prevention and leadership trainings are a great beginning to leadership learning. Personal executive and physician wellness coaching for physician leaders are a great way to allow physician leaders to deal with their own exhaustion and over-commitment while showing them what is available to provide for their frontline providers. Holding retreats for your physicians and staff can let your team know that you care about their well-being. Encourage your physicians to take their allotted vacation time. It may seem counterintuitive, but imagine your boss empowering you to take a vacation. It really sends the message: “You are a valued member of the team; more than just a cog in a wheel; more than just an assembly line worker. You matter, and your health is important to me.” That kind of messaging from you is not only needed but will promote a sense of loyalty and foster a deeper connection and commitment. Similarly, setting time aside for attendance of personal retreats or wellness retreats that pour back into your personal energy account can bring balance and focus so that you can have more space to effectively empower your teams.
When executives and physician leaders address their own burnout, head on, they will be able to then deal with what needs to be put in place for their team to do the same. Similarly, when they address the cause of the current ineffectiveness in how they are leading, they can lead doctors out of burnout instead of leading them into it.
Maiysha Clairborne is an integrative medicine physician and can be reached at The Stress Free Mom MD. She is the author of The Wellness Blueprint: The Complete Mind/Body Approach to Reclaiming Your Health & Wellness.
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