'Everything cannot be accomplished all at once': Garnet Health CEO on how prioritizing goals can help reduce burnout

The term "burnout," as it relates to clinicians, has become part of the lexicon in hospitals. Why are nurses leaving? They are burned out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are fewer doctors pursuing emergency specialties? Again, according to a Washington Post article, burnout.

Subsequently, clinicians are leaving hospital healthcare. And the ensuing difficulty hospitals are reporting in finding qualified physicians and nurses to handle patient load is not only a major challenge in itself, but short-handed departments lead to individuals feeling overworked, frustrated and, yes, burned out.

Becker's spoke with Jerry Dunlavey, interim president and chief executive officer of Middletown, N.Y.-based Garnet Health, about what hospital leaders can do now to extinguish burn out and encourage clinicians to re-embrace their chosen profession.

Editor's note: The following answers have been edited lightly for clarity.

Question: How can hospitals solve the clinician burnout challenge?

Jerry Dunlavey: Healthcare has always been a high-stress profession. Then the COVID pandemic hit and took burnout to a whole new level. And it hasn't subsided as we are now trying to navigate a labor shortage. 

My advice is to [encourage] all staff to make it a priority to use paid time off. I don't mean just take the day off "while checking emails." I mean fully disconnect. All team members, including leaders, must take the opportunity to utilize their time off to reset and recharge. No work interruptions, no checking work emails, no work texting and no work phone calls. 

Easier said than done, I know. But it's vital we all get that chance to decompress so we can come back to work with a renewed energy and focus. When we reboot, refresh and rejuvenate we are more productive, supportive and cooperative.

Q: Does hospital culture have an effect on burnout?

JD: Yes. Leaders need to stop and check the pulse of the organization's culture, because culture can add to burnout. The past three years have weighed heavily on every staff member in some way or another. I foster and encourage a culture of respect and accountability for the well-being of all staff. 

At Garnet Health, we lean on our internal resources to help support psychological, physical and emotional well-being. If the job is too big, then we seek outside help. We have a workplace wellness committee and EAP resources. Our occupational health department is also very helpful in supporting employees who are struggling. They maintain confidentiality while connecting the employee with the proper resources. 

Q: What is one thing hospital leaders can do immediately to reduce burnout?

JD: Leaders can take deliberate steps to help staff prioritize the work. Placing too many projects on staff leads to burnout. From strategic initiatives to operational functions, we must accept that everything cannot all be accomplished at once. We must focus on what is most important right now in today's healthcare environment. 

Therefore, prioritize the goals that are truly patient-focused. Be disciplined and practical when developing and implementing finance-related initiatives; don't cut expenses so much that it puts constraints on your growth opportunities. And stay on top of quality, safety, employee engagement and patient satisfaction. 

Q: How can hospital leaders best connect with clinicians?

JD: Rounding is a great way to connect with your front-line staff. These moments are enlightening. Many will be very honest with you about their frustrations, what challenges they have and what they need to do their job efficiently and effectively. They will be happy to see you and you will get some honest insight on what contributes to their burnout and why [employee] engagement scores are the way they are. 

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