How innovation can prevent a burnout

It is well documented that burnout among professionals is a problem. Especially among clinicians, the high workload in combination with an enormous amount of bureaucracy, make that many are struggling to make it through each day. Did you know that innovation and improvement projects can help prevent burnouts?

The size of the problem

The numbers reported for clinicians in the US are alarming: "37% of newly licensed registered nurses are thinking of leaving the profession, 54% of U.S. physicians are burned out, and 60% of surveyed physicians are considering leaving their jobs have lost the pleasure in their jobs".

In other professions it is not much different, such as for example in the law profession. To give you an indication, 70% of Yale Law School students have struggled with mental health issues during their law school years.

How to address it?

The approach suggested in the legal community

The remedies recommended in the legal community are focused on recognition of the problem and meditation and mindfulness as the solution. "From their first days of law school, lawyers are taught to vigilantly search the horizon for problems—to anticipate, prevent and resolve problems. But many attorneys lose the ability to choose when to approach the world that way, and a meditation practice can reverse that trend, according to Richard Carlton, acting director of the State Bar of California's Lawyer Assistance Program, which helps lawyers and bar applicants grappling with stress, anxiety, substance abuse or career concerns."

The approach suggested in the health care community

In healthcare, the Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) has taken a more direct approach to address and prevent burnout. Through research and prototyping, the IHI has identified four proven steps that leaders can take to develop a healthier workplace:

  1. Ask staff what matters to them. Leaders create space to hear what truly matters to staff and physicians. They engage everyone at all levels in creating workplace improvement efforts and coproducing solutions to identified challenges. They connect the work to the mission, vision, and values of the organization and regularly monitor the work's progress and impact. This first step is about asking the right questions and really listening for the answers to identify what contributes to—or detracts from—joy in work.
  2. Identify impediments. Leaders identify the processes, issues, or circumstances that impede professional, social, and psychological well-being. Steps 1 and 2 often commence simultaneously and continue over time. Having conversations about what matters to each staff member builds the trust needed to identify frustrations experienced during the workday. It may seem obvious, but one truth that stands out from our research is that all staff must feel that their ideas, opinions, and comments will be heard before they feel able to be open and honest.
  3. Make joy in work a shared responsibility. Multidisciplinary teams come together and share responsibility for removing impediments. Although making a workplace joyful is the job of leaders, everyone from senior executive leadership to clinical and administrative staff has a role to play. From creating effective systems to building teams to bolstering one's own resilience and supporting a positive culture, everyone contributes (as detailed later).
  4. Use improvement science to test approaches. Finally, leaders and staff jointly use improvement science to accelerate the creation of a more joyful and productive place to work. (Improvement science applies innovation, rapid-cycle field testing, and dissemination to generate learning about changes that produce improvements.) Why is this last step so important? By using principles of improvement science, organizations can determine if the changes they test are leading to improvement, are effective in different environments, are sustainable, and can be spread.

The above steps are not unique to improvement or innovation. What makes them effective to combat burnout is the shared ownership employees take in the future of the organization. It gives everyone the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way.

In other words, you empower people to take action. Doesn't that sound like more work? Indeed! However, taking action gives you energy. Just like for example exercising. Yes running a 5k makes you tired, but it also energizes you.

How innovation can prevent burnout

If innovation can help prevent burnouts, that is great news! I never knew that innovating could have a positive health impact.

I would recommend following the healthcare community's advice. After all, they are better equipped to address health problems than the law profession. Follow the 4 steps recommended by the IHI.

Of the suggested approach, step 4 is likely the most challenging to implement for most organizations. Listening to your employees is the easy part. Enabling them to participate in innovation and improvement activities and encouraging them to take action upon their ideas requires a process and innovation capabilities. At Organizing4Innovation we gladly assist with the latter!

Now, go out there and change the world for your clients, organization, and profession!