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Aug. 9, 2021

Combating burnout by promoting wellness among physicians

Burnout among physicians and medical school faculty is not just an individual problem, but is an issue that organizations need to address by minimizing the system-level factors that impede employee wellness, a recent Michigan State University study concluded.

Several organizational factors, such as a growing regulatory environment, loss of autonomy, long hours, and the pressure to earn promotions under threat of job loss, contribute to burnout, the study found.

Promoting wellness among physicians is important, because “each burned out physician has an impact potentially on hundreds of patients and students,” said Claudia Finkelstein, the study’s lead author and the College of Human Medicine’s director of Wellness, Resilience and Vulnerable Populations.

University of Washington graduate student Anne Ordway and University of Washington Professor Kurt Johnson also worked on the study published July 16 in Work, a peer-reviewed journal. The study was based on interviews with 24 department chairs at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Rather than focus on burnout, the study examined the department chairs’ views of wellness among their physicians and other faculty members.

“Wellness is more than the absence of burnout,” Finkelstein said. “I was curious about how they define wellness of their faculty. There is still not a well-defined measure of wellness.”

Some department chairs defined wellness as being physically fit, she said, while others included mental health.

“They all felt they had some degree of responsibility for faculty wellness,” she said, but most department chairs were unsure of what they were allowed to ask employees and what resources were available to promote wellness.

Department chairs should be trained on how to ask about wellness during annual reviews and where to refer those who need help, Finkelstein said.

The interviews were conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic increased stress for physicians, students, and nearly everyone else.

“COVID has made it much more obvious,” Finkelstein said. “The main thing is this is a microcosm of society at large. I think all of us are pretty frazzled at this point.”

By: Geri Kelley

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