A "global human energy crisis" is coming. How can emotional intelligence help us navigate it?
Are you and your team burned out? Increased rates of burnout impact the well-being of providers and the quality of care for patients.
In a recent study, the American Medical Association reports half of physicians now experience aspects of burnout. Research at Six Seconds shows we are headed to a “global human energy crisis” with far-reaching implications for the entire health care system. What can disrupt burnout? Primary care physicians and other clinicians and health care providers can develop measurable skills of emotional intelligence to improve their well-being and workplace performance.
Mental Health is a Workplace Issue
Frontline health care workers were some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. In addition to tremendous workload, the added mental health effects of fear and uncertainty depleted people and the consequences of prolonged stress on the system have arrived.
As World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in March 2021, the pandemic has a long-term emotional impact: “When there is mass trauma, it affects communities for many years to come.”
The effects of burnout are both personal and professional. In health care, emotional depletion is linked to higher turnover, more absenteeism, more errors and accidents, and an increase in unhealthy coping strategies (such as substance abuse).
Mind Share Partners’ Mental Health at Work Report shows massive increases in mental health burdens at work, with 84% of respondents stating work has a negative effect on their mental health. The Workforce Institute at UKG found people’s supervisors had as much mental health impact as a spouse – and more than a therapist.
Whether you’re in a formal role of leader, such as a private practice or supervising others in a hospital, you hold a position of leadership. In that position, your choices, your role-modeling, your interactions have a direct impact on others’ mental health and well-being.
A Surprising Myth: Burnout is Not About Overwork
Burnout is the feeling of being utterly depleted, unmotivated and detached from one’s work.
As defined by the World Health Organization, burnout is:
Physical and emotional exhaustion
Depersonalization / detachment / cynicism
Decline in sense of personal accomplishment
Burnout’s causes are deeply linked to basic emotional needs like belonging, purpose, recognition and autonomy. Research backs this up. In a recent JAMA Network Open original investigation, physician burnout is connected to professional fulfillment. This study ranked at the most burned out and disconnected physicians by specialty. The results may surprise you (Figure 1).
Do You Recognize Burnout?
In this model (Figure 2) adapted from Freundenberger’s development of burnout research, we can see how burnout behaviors build and reinforce a cycle of overwork, degraded relationships and mental health issues.
What are the key causes of burnout? Research has identified the following four factors:
A perceived lack of control or autonomy
Insufficient reward or recognition
A perceived lack of social support / community
A perceived lack of meaning / purpose
While the burnout numbers are alarming, they should be a call to action: Clinicians and staff members are adversely affected by the increased emotional turmoil, and to meet this challenge, new skills are required.
Emotional Intelligence for Health Care Providers
Emotional intelligence has a mitigating effect on burnout for health care workers. In a 2022 cross-sectional public health study, researchers found “improving the emotional intelligence of health care staff has practical significance in reducing the level of job burnout directly and will reduce the incidence of burnout by reducing the frequency of violence (especially for emotional exhaustion and depersonalization).”
How does emotional intelligence support health care professionals? We spoke with Carlos A. Pellegrini MD, FACS, executive coach, former chief medical officer of UW Medicine, and current chair of the Joint Commission.
He points out that emotional intelligence is integral to a physician’s work: “The practice of medicine today requires clear, constant, and concise communications with the patients and with all other care providers.This starts with introspection – knowing and understanding our own emotions. That in turn, allows us to choose how we interact with them, to share and to give ourselves, and that elicits a need for all others to “give” (knowledge, skills, expertise) and share their emotions with us.The pursuit of excellence in medicine is tied to the emotional intelligence of the provider.”
Five Ways to Reverse Burnout in Your Workplace
The link between mental health and work led the U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, to release the “Surgeon General’s Framework for Mental Health and Well-Being,” which offers useful broad structure. Based on that framework, here are five key areas to activate:
Protection from harm: Take your share of the responsibility for mental health and well-being. That doesn’t mean taking all the share – but being clear that as a leader, you have some work to do in this area.
Connection and community: Focus on building a positive, inclusive workplace where people feel a sense of belonging. By putting just a little more attention on relationships, physicians have a tremendous opportunity to shape the culture in your practice or team. Relationships are the number one driver of sustainable mental health (and, research on social determinants of health suggest this is true for physical health as well) – and on retaining and engaging employees.
Work-life harmony: Set and respect boundaries, but also recognize autonomy. In the hierarchical nature of health care businesses, physicians sometimes overuse authority which diminishes autonomy. That has a deleterious effect on mental health, and on performance.
Mattering at work: Build connection between routine tasks and the meaningful mission. When people can connect the dots between the work they do and the positive impact it has, this meaning at work can mitigate stress.
Opportunity for growth: Learning brings a sense of accomplishment. Physicians can do this for themselves by engaging in meaningful learning, and support team members by teaching, mentoring, and offering quality feedback.
Healthy Minds, Healthy Workplaces, Healthy People
When health care organizations prioritize their own people, they create better results. In a case study using emotional intelligence in preventing burnout, the chief medical officer at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, Dr. James Sliwa, stresses that the state-of-the-art facilities can only be used at full potential when the doctors and nurses who fill the building are flourishing and motivated.
“The physical space is a manifestation of the people who work in it, and how they work together,” says Dr. Sliwa. “And research shows that emotional intelligence is a critical factor in people’s ability to regulate themselves and work effectively with others.”
As individuals we are each responsible for our own wellness and we are also an integral part of an organizational system or institution. When we raise awareness and participate in positive practices to support emotional intelligence we can disrupt the cycle of burnout and influence a supportive work environment for all.
Note: This article originally appeared in Medical Economics®.