Healthcare Burnout: A New Model with a Powerful Perspective


The literature is overflowing with articles published over the past couple of years about healthcare burnout. Initially, the focus was on “improving resilience”. Now the focus is on the “fixing the system”. At some point, we need to stop pointing fingers and actually get down to business to do something about it.

Healthcare professionals are not gladiators

Back in the day, Rome had four different schools for gladiators. They had the best medical care, the best training, and they even ate fortified barley. It was expensive to have a gladiator so it made sense to train them to be tougher so they would last longer. The problem is, their burnout rate was about the same as ours: 50% because they fought to the death. Healthcare professionals (like docs, nurses, administrators, physical therapists, and pharmacists) can only become so “resilient”. We cannot “resilience” our way out of healthcare burnout. There aren’t enough gladiators.

The System is the people

Eric Garton, in his recently published article in the Harvard Business review entitled “Employee Burnout is a Problem with the Company, not the Person”1. In their book, The Truth About Burnout2, authors Maslach and Leiter say “burnout in individuals workers says more about the conditions of their job than it does about them.”

No doubt, we face a stiff challenge in delivering medical care in a manner consistent with “first do no harm” while working in an environment that is, in and of itself, harmful. While I understand the point that Garton, Maslach, and Leitner are making, we are naive if we think that we can fix burnout by just fixing “the system” alone because systems can’t be fixed without the investment of the people involved. If individual burnout is ignored, people will remain disengaged and resistant to change. As a result, efforts to improve the environment will be met with blank stares or backroom grumbling.

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We need a new approach

The problem of burnout is complex. In this model, I’ve identified four key areas that will need to be addressed if we hope to create a more sustainable healthcare system. The four elements are:

  • Self: the individual
  • Squad: the collection of individuals who make up a team
  • System: the collection of teams who make up the organization
  • Served: the patients whom we serve with our organization, teams, and individuals.

These four distinct areas require focused strategies to improve the overall environment. Over the next 12 weeks, I will be diving into each of these four areas to take a closer look. I welcome your feedback and look forward to a healthy discussion. It is time to lean in and resuscitate our healthcare system because people are getting hurt (both patients and professionals). To change the system, we need people who are willing to take ownership, roll up their sleeves, and get involved. Are you in?

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