The soul of healthcare: Hospital executives seek spiritual health to support leadership

Hospital and health system executives work hard to create an environment that fosters the healing process. That said, many believe the best way for an executive to do this is to ensure that they themselves are in a healthy place — not just physically, but spiritually.

Three healthcare leaders — Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Health Association; Ed Fry, president of executive search firm FaithSearch Partners; and Anthony R. Tersigni, EdD, president and CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension— agree that spiritual health oftentimes goes beyond religion alone.

For many healthcare executives, nurturing their sense of spirituality might include creating time each day for reflection, meditation, community service or various other activities. Although it might be easy to right off such tasks as low on the priority list, spiritual health is actually an important business strategy administrators and executives can use to become well-rounded individuals and better leaders.

"We describe the compassionate and personalized care that we provide at Ascension as 'holistic,' meaning that we treat the whole person — body, mind and spirit," says Dr. Tersigni. "We encourage our caregivers to think about their own health and well-being in a similarly holistic fashion and attend to the needs of their own body, mind and spirit."

Mr. Fry, as well as the FaithSearch Partners' philosophy, support this ideology of holistic care.

"I've always been a proponent of the idea that a well-rounded person is healthy," says Mr. Fry. "To be rounded out and healthy, there is a spiritual component that requires nurturing in a proactive, intentional way."

Nurturing the soul

Healthcare leaders looking to nurture their spiritual health should start by reflecting upon their values, philosophies and priorities in life — be it prioritizing the dignity of others above all, focusing attention on one's own family or emphasizing care for the less fortunate — according to Sister Keehan.

"Personally, I nourish my spirit through my Catholic faith, but for some people it's through their Jewish, Muslim or nondenominational faith," says Sister Keehan. "Others still find nourishment through a more humanistic perspective that's based on the dignity of human beings. In the end, what's important is to have an idea of what's worth living and what's worth dying for."

The next step is incorporating everyday changes that support those values, according to Mr. Fry. He suggests healthcare leaders incorporate spiritual discipline into their daily routine.

"Spiritual disciplines can include daily prayer, devotional time, meditation, scriptural study or other activities," says Mr. Fry. "Many people practice these disciplines every day until it becomes a part of their DNA and, if they miss it, they can feel the difference."

As the leader of Ascension, Dr. Tersigni sets an example for his fellow executives and the organization's caregivers by eating healthily and being physically active, as well as taking time for prayer, reflection and community service. These activities help him to feel recharged.

Some hospitals and health systems —whether religiously affiliated or secular — offer executives the opportunity for sabbaticals every few years. Mr. Fry encourages executives to take advantage of this benefit if made available.

"Sabbaticals allow executives to take time off to do something totally different, which allows them to return to work with more clarity," he says. "This perk can also help ward off burnout, so leaders are operating in a much more effective way than if they are feeling spiritually drained."

The place where spirituality and healthcare leadership meet

Spirituality is frequently associated with religion or worship. That said, the topic often arises when it comes to working with — or leading —a religiously affiliated or secular healthcare organization. How does personal spirituality affect running a hospital tied to a particular faith?

According to Mr. Fry, some religiously affiliated organizations look for leaders who ascribe to their specific belief system, while others are more flexible and require only that leaders support the general goals of the organization. Even though Ascension is one of the largest nonprofit and religiously affiliated health systems in the country, Dr. Tersigni describes it as flexible when it comes to spirituality and leadership.

"We ask an important question to those who wish to serve in Ascension's healthcare ministry: 'Can you support our mission, vision and values?' Just as you don't have to be Catholic to receive care at an Ascension facility, you don't have to be Catholic to serve with us," says Dr. Tersigni. "We have leaders from a number of faith traditions who appreciate our unique and special calling. Their diverse perspectives are welcome in executive leadership roles, [but] we must be unified in our mutual commitment to Ascension's mission, vision and values."  

In addition to helping leaders guide a hospital or health system, spirituality serves as a way to cope with stress or burnout. Executives in any industry would argue that they experience a unique level of and type of stress, including in healthcare, according to Mr. Fry.

"The difference in healthcare is executives are dealing with decisions that may affect life or death or, at the very least, people's quality of life. Sure, this stress may be felt a bit more acutely on the physician or clinician side, but hospital and health system leaders create the environments in which providers can do their job," he notes.

Sister Keehan shared examples of how the stress of healthcare can weigh on industry leaders.

"Leaders are frequently asked to tighten a hospital's financial belt and cut jobs without jeopardizing safety. They oversee the organization's instrument sterilization rules to prevent infections and they are held responsible if a worker who was hired turns out to be addicted to drugs or is selling drugs to patients in the facility," says Sister Keehan. "These are the types of things that can keep a CEO up at night."

Taking care of the spirit can help leaders handle tough situations like these and focus on the good in healthcare. Ultimately, spiritual wellness in any shape or form can help leaders better inspire others.

"People want to see leaders who are comfortable in their own skin, who have a sense of mission and values in life and who, quite frankly, have a sense of joy and a sense of humor," says Sister Keehan. "In the end, these factors and elements of spiritual health can go a long way in helping people deal with the very real stresses of healthcare leadership."

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