don’t need to tell you that it’s been a really hard 18 months. On a global, national, and local scale we have collectively experienced significant trauma, fear, and uncertainty with seemingly no end. Nowhere is that more prevalent than for frontline health care workers who have been asked to step up and fight a novel and unpredictable disease. It probably comes as no surprise that health care employee burnout is at an all-time high.
University of Utah Health uses quarterly surveys to gauge employee attitudes and look for ways to improve employee well-being, while also increasing engagement, collaboration, accountability, and respect, and pushing for continued excellence. We call these surveys our Well Check.
In the most recent quarterly survey, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of employees reporting feelings of burnout. System-wide, the number of employees reporting these feelings was 30%, but in Moran Eye Center it was more than one in three (34%). Only 22% of employees said burnout wasn’t a problem at all.
As leaders, we knew this was not okay. We had to take immediate action to help our employees so they can continue delivering exceptional care to our patients.
Addressing burnout from the ground up
The first step to dealing with growing levels of burnout is to acknowledge it and allocate resources to move the dial in the right direction.
1. Listen to the people doing the work
We talked to two experts in our organization, Michael Danielson in Organizational Development and Dr. Jake Van Epps, a psychologist in the University of Utah Health’s Resiliency Center. They recommended putting together a committee to hear directly from employees. We partnered with our chair, Dr. Randall Olson, who was already overseeing a faculty Wellness and Mindfulness Committee, to expand the scope and change the name to the Resilience Committee.
Guiding principles of the Resilience Committee:
The committee is focused on gathering open and transparent feedback
We want to hear from all employees at every level, not just leadership
Meetings will be short (30 minutes every other week) and the purpose is to gather information—it’s not a working committee
We solicited names from all departments to get multiple viewpoints, including:
Patient financial advocate (PFA)
Once we gathered information from committee members, we made it clear that we, the leadership team, would do the work necessary to address burnout (not add more work for the frontline committee members).
2. Communicate concerns transparently with everyone
We asked participants to come to meetings prepared to discuss burnout with simple priming questions: What does burnout look like for you? What would help make it better? As committee leaders our job was simply to listen. We outlined what we learned in bullet points and shared it in an email with every member of our faculty and leadership (below).
Within the email, we laid out the problem (reported levels of high burnout) and shared some of the staff’s comments from the Well Check survey word for word. The goal was complete transparency so everyone was on the same page.
From: Brent Price
Dear Clinical Faculty:
The pandemic continues to impact us in many ways. Specifically, maintaining sufficient staffing in clinics and the OR remain significant priorities. Utah has a very tight healthcare labor market, and we have several initiatives to improve retention of our excellent employees. These include reviewing compensation, adding positions where needed and reducing burnout by allowing staff time off and listening to their concerns. In the most recent staff engagement survey, Moran had 34% of employees indicate that burnout was a problem (compared to 30% UHealth-wide which isn’t good either). Only 22% indicated it wasn’t a problem.
We selected a group of front-line employees to give feedback on burnout, and the clinic leaders are discussing this with individuals and with teams. One of the themes shared by employees is the need to be recognized for their good work. They indicate that recognition from providers with whom they work is very important. You have their respect. Recognition from you is particularly meaningful. Most of you already do this, and we thank you and encourage you to continue.
Provider behaviors that staff reported are especially impactful to them include the following:
3. Reinforce the message with a call to action
The final step was to offer suggestions for specific actions for faculty. The faculty member is the leader of the patient-centered team, and our committee shared that the faculty member’s behavior is incredibly impactful in making an employee feel seen and appreciated. These suggestions came directly from the feedback:
Expressions of gratitude, including a simple “thank you” for the work they do
Acknowledgement when they do their job well
Occasional treats or lunches as a reward
Respect for staff members’ time and their ability to balance work and personal life
We also issued a call to action to create “Resiliency Moments”, where at least one monthly internal meeting kicks off with a specific activity focused on well-being and workforce resilience. Our first Resiliency Moment in August was centered around gratitude—we go around the room and let everyone share something they are grateful for, shifting the narrative from negative to something more positive.
"Resiliency Moments" Topic Ideas and Monthly Focus:
What we learned
We’ve learned a lot from this committee that can help us continue to build resilience and improve our workplace, even in the most challenging times.
Acknowledgement and gratitude go a long way. Staff identified gratitude and recognition of the work they do with a simple “thank you” as a big motivator. They specifically mentioned faculty and providers by name who are doing this already as examples of what they want and need.
Faculty are leaders within the organization, and have a responsibility as such. Staff want to know that the people they respect and admire in leadership—our faculty—care about the work they do and the contributions they make. As leaders, faculty have a responsibility to communicate that to their teams.
Everyone’s role matters on a team. Each person on a team has a different role to play, but there should never be a feeling of “class differences” between providers and staff. Everyone involved in patient care makes an important contribution.
Authentic teams know each other on a personal level. It might seem basic, but just calling someone by their name is one of the most important things leaders can do. It’s difficult to respect and recognize the work of team members if you don’t even know their names. For efficiency purposes you might work with many different people, but taking time to learn their names goes a long way.
The outcome: It’s working
We are excited to see our faculty and staff taking the suggestions and addressing resilience. We heard about three meetings in August where someone shared a moment of gratitude without being asked. Faculty members are copying us on emails they send out to specifically thank staff members for the work they do. In clinical walk-throughs we hear faculty members suggest bringing in lunch for the team to say thanks, or asking administrators for the names of people they are going to work with in the clinic that day.
The feelings of gratitude and recognition are apparent, and we’re happy to have everyone on board with this initiative. We know it can make a difference in our workplace resilience.