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How Can Leadership Reduce Burnout? Key Insights on Two New Studies of Essential Medical Workers

Amy young new research leadership and burnout

In her research, Amy Young, professor of teaching in business communications, explores the link between employee burnout and leadership. In two new papers, Young and her colleagues explore how improvements in leadership communication can remedy some of the challenges currently facing the healthcare industry, such as staffing shortages, burnout, and turnover. 

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Given the difficulty in reducing workloads, creating flexible schedules, and increasing compensation due to systemic and financial challenges, positive leadership communication can be an effective tool to reduce burnout and turnover. 
  2. The research indicates that leaders should also prioritize fulfilling employees' psychological needs for affirmation, inclusion, and appreciation for their contributions. Doing so promotes a healthier and more productive work environment and improves employee engagement and loyalty. 
  3. All levels of leadership, from manager to executive, can make employees feel valued. Whether through daily interactions or broader channels of formal communication, leaders should strive for open communication, transparency, and genuine connections. 

In the following Q&A, Young discussed some of the key findings of her two studies and insights on how to best implement positive leadership communication. 

Your research on healthcare worker burnout is incredibly relevant, particularly now. What drew you to test the effectiveness of leadership communication?

There was a clear need for interventions in healthcare, even before the pandemic. Existing approaches to addressing burnout and turnover primarily focused on reducing workloads, having more flexible work schedules, and increasing compensation, which makes sense, given that these factors were contributing to burnout and turnover. 

Realistically, though, ongoing staff shortages and financial shortfalls in healthcare centers and hospitals have made it difficult to actually implement these approaches. These challenges reflect larger systemic problems and an ongoing crisis in the healthcare industry.

In your paper, “Positive Leadership within Breast Imaging: Impact on Burnout, Intent to Leave, and Engagement,” you designed and tested a training course for positive leadership. What were some of the key lessons you wanted to impart?

It is time to “humanize” the workplace. If you look at recent employee surveys, you’ll see that employees want a workplace where they can feel a sense of purpose and meaningful connections to others. Yet most workplace conversations are transactional and often focus primarily on relaying information that enables us to do our job. “Bring the paperwork.”  “Tell me how to calculate the estimates.” “Let’s move forward with this.” We are concise, direct, and clear in the workplace because “time is money.” 

As social beings, we are evolutionarily hardwired to need more from our interactions.  Words and non-verbal gestures that convey to others that they are affirmed, valued, and belong to the social group fulfill basic psychological needs. The takeaway for leaders is that it’s possible to create a productive workplace while simultaneously fulfilling these fundamental psychological needs. When leaders recognize the humanity in their employees, they earn exceptional engagement and unwavering loyalty.

Your two recent papers primarily focused on the healthcare industry.  Are there any other industries that could benefit from your positive leadership communication framework? 

I started working in healthcare prior to the pandemic because it was an industry most acutely affected by burnout and turnover. Now, most organizations are concerned about employee stress, mental health, and burnout. While the unique stressors may be different in other industries, this program centers around fulfilling the fundamental need to be affirmed, to belong, and to be valued by others. Any leader concerned about employee well-being could benefit from this training. 

Were there any particular levels of leadership that have more or less influence on making employees feel valued? 

Leaders at all levels affect whether employees feel valued. For supervisors and managers, it is often the day-to-day interactions that matter. For executives, they can learn to convey appreciation through communication channels such as blogs and videos. Understanding how to be honest, transparent, and personable is essential. 

Executives also need to be mindful of how some of their decisions affect employees throughout the organization. For example, a change in reporting structure or a new employment policy may inadvertently negatively impact employees. Without knowing it, executives can give the impression that they don’t care about employees. Whether accurate or not, perception becomes reality within organizations. Having a good line of communication up and down the hierarchy helps avoid this.

For organizations struggling with employee burnout, what are the first things they should do to address these issues? 

If you haven’t done so already, talk to employees about how they are doing. Employees are reluctant to share how they may be struggling out of fear it will reflect negatively on them, so they suffer in silence. So does their work productivity. Whether it’s quiet quitting or active quitting, a struggling employee is less effective. This conversation makes sense not only out of compassion but also out of the need to maintain a productive workforce.

If you ask employees how they are doing, they may share how you could make a difference. Some suggestions you may be able to act on, while others may not be within your control. Even if you are not in a position to make a difference, follow up with the employee and be as transparent as possible. Not following up will be interpreted that you do not care. Remember, perception becomes reality.

Do you have any upcoming research projects on burnout and leadership communication?

There are a couple of next steps in the process that will hopefully begin in the fall of 2024. I’m working on scaling the program so it can be brought to a wider audience while still maintaining its integrity. I’m also interested in evaluating the impact of the program on key performance indicators that the leaders of the units focus on. In the healthcare community, these commonly include patient safety, outcomes, and satisfaction. Caring for the people in an organization makes good business sense, but it helps leaders to see it empirically demonstrated to trust what they already know.

The exciting news is that there are actually no-cost solutions leaders can use to improve the well-being of healthcare providers. While they can’t address the larger challenges that plague the whole healthcare industry, they can improve the lives of healthcare workers who have made tremendous sacrifices over the past couple of years. 

Documents & Links
A Focus on Leadership Communication and Feeling Valued to Prevent Burnout and T… Positive Leadership within Breast Imaging: Impact on Burnout, Intent to Leave, …
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