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Combatting healthcare burnout at the leadership level

Burnout remains at epidemic levels across the healthcare ecosystem. How can emerging leadership roles, like Chief Wellbeing Officer, help?
By admin
Aug 18, 2023, 2:11 PM

Healthcare organizations have found a new way to combat workforce burnout: by establishing a Chief Wellbeing Officer or Chief Wellness Officer (CWO).

In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of clinicians exhibited at least one serious symptom of burnout. The overwhelming tsunami of COVID-19 patients, combined with the stresses of staffing shortages decades in the making, brought the healthcare system close to its breaking point.   

With morale at its lowest and no end in sight, hundreds of thousands of clinical and administrative workers have since fled the industry all together, leaving massive gaps in the workforce that continue to restrict care access and delay innovation. 

In many organizations, the grim situation has been exacerbated by poor choices at the leadership level. The internet is littered with memes of superficial gestures to front-line staff that ended up being insulting instead of motivating, while managers have been put on blast for exploiting the remaining staff members that have stayed to pick up slack of their former colleagues. 

But some health systems have bucked the trend. A growing body of evidence shows that organizations with a Chief Wellness Officer or Chief Wellbeing Officer (CWO) tended to fare better with responding to the needs of healthcare workers, communicating effectively, and offering meaningful support services to front-line staff.  

Novant Health’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, Thomas Jenike, MD, stepped into the official role shortly before COVID-19 hit, although he had been working in a similar vein for nearly a decade prior. 

“My job is to care for the caregivers,” Jenike told DHI. “As a family physician, it’s something I’m very passionate about. We were on the earlier side of having a Chief Wellbeing Officer in place, but it’s obviously become a lot more prevalent over the past few years. I’m glad to see that more healthcare systems are embracing the trend, because it’s critical to have someone in a focused role to take on these responsibilities.” 

Chief wellbeing officer: Creating a culture of caring throughout the organization  

Organizational culture plays a major role in the success of wellness and mental health initiatives – and culture starts with leadership from the C-suite and other management positions. 

“At Novant Health, we have had a pretty good track record of caring for our people as a key factor in running a successful health system,” said Jenike. “The groundwork was already there: there wasn’t a need to fight for wellness programming or technologies to support our team.  That’s not always the case. As an industry, we need to do a better job of training leaders to care for people and giving them the tools they need to demonstrate that care in tangible, affirming ways.” 

“That requires a persistent, public focus on destigmatizing conversations about mental health.  When I was in med school, I was training not to talk about it because it might be perceived as a weakness or a liability in terms of job performance.  Part of our work over the last number of years is to give voice to the fact that it’s okay not to be okay, and that self-care isn’t selfish.” 

Those messages are particularly important in the uncertain post-pandemic environment, he continued. 

“Pre-pandemic stress was probably around 50% nationwide, which was problematic to start with,” noted Jenike. “However, during the pandemic, a strong sense of service, dedication, and compassion kept our front-line workers going throughout the worst of it.” 

“What’s happening now is the big let off as the adrenaline fades.  Now that the immediate crisis has diminished, they’re starting to really feel the fatigue and the PTSD of that time, so we need to be vigilant and strategic about how we help our teams recover and renew themselves.” 

Offering real-world tools for staff members to take change of their wellness 

Technology plays a big part in Novant Health’s ongoing wellbeing strategy. The organization recently secured a grant from the Duke Endowment to deploy a mental health app that connects team members with educational resources – and live clinical support, if necessary – to help them manage stress and stay well. 

“Our focus is on giving our team practical tools, not just pizza parties and pats on the back, so that they can truly thrive both personally and professionally. We want them to know that we’re all in this together and that their mental health is a really big, important deal. It’s not just throwing a cupcake at people and saying, ‘thank you.’ That’s not going to cut it in this day and age, and more health systems need to really internalize that.” 

Establishing a Chief Wellbeing Officer in the health system setting

Chief Wellbeing Officers are likely to be in increasing demand over the next few years as mental health remains in the national spotlight and health systems continue to grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic. 

The American Medical Association (AMA) has even developed a toolkit designed to help health systems understand the purpose of this role and build toward adding a CWO to their executive team. The toolkit suggests that organizations take the following eight steps: 

  • Make the Quadruple Aim (better outcomes, lower costs, better experiences for patients, and better experiences for providers) a guiding competency for the organization 
  • Create a well-being task force to define challenges and goals  
  • Establish the reasons why wellbeing is important for the organization 
  • Secure the support of organizational leadership for adding a CWO role 
  • Determine the scope and responsibilities of a CWO position 
  • Allocate staff and resources to the new wellness team  
  • Identify key performance indicators for the wellness team to measure and track success 
  • Create a detailed job description and begin the search for a qualified CWO executive 

 By establishing an executive advocate for wellness and equipping the CWO with the resource he or she needs to make a difference, healthcare organizations can visibly prioritize wellbeing and mental health for their team members – as well as the patients they serve. 

Jennifer Bresnick is a journalist and freelance content creator with a decade of experience in the health IT industry.  Her work has focused on leveraging innovative technology tools to create value, improve health equity, and achieve the promises of the learning health system.  She can be reached at jennifer@inklesscreative.com.

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