Effective Healthcare Leadership: Reversing the Rising Burnout Rates

January 21, 2022

On January 19, 2022, Zotec Partners hosted a Zotec Shares Webinar with special guest Tom Hustead titled Effective Healthcare Leadership: Reversing the Rising Burnout Rates.

Tom is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Referent Group which focuses on physician leadership development. He’s no stranger to leadership, graduating in the top 3% of his class at West Point and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. As a retired Army Colonel, highlights from his distinguished 24-year career include being awarded Flight Surgeon of the Year, Outstanding Faculty of the Year, and Department Chair for a family medicine residency department. In his final military appointment, Tom was commander of a NATO military medical facility at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium. Most recently, Tom served as the Chief Medical Officer for the Medical Group at Hardin Memorial Health in Elizabethtown, KY where he still resides.
As a result of his time in the Army, Tom recognized a need and developed a passion for teaching physicians to be effective, engaged leaders and thus co-founded The Referent Group. In the decades of leadership experience, he has accumulated in medicine and in the Army, he has been met with his fair share of challenges. In our Zotec Shares Webinar, Tom graciously shares insights into effective leadership through tough times and burnout.

Read below for some top leadership lessons from our discussion:

Tom, what is one of your highlights from your NATO experience?
My last assignment was the ultimate leadership experience for me in my military career. I had the opportunity to go into an organization that was struggling, and within a year, my team and I were able to change the climate to be top performing. The change all stemmed from leadership. When you get leadership right, there’s nothing more powerful.

Prior to the pandemic, the healthcare worker burnout rates averaged from 30-50%. Now, burnout rates range from 40-70%. What’s the cause of this dramatic increase?
It’s not surprising to see this, we are all tired of being burnt out, and I think people are even tired of the term “burnout.” There was a lot of research well before the pandemic indicating that we were already struggling. There’s a huge spectrum of burnout, exhaustion, cynicism, etc., and while it’s not surprising to see, I believe we can do better and address it.

Now that we talked about the causes of burnout, what’s the effect of burnout on providers and their organization?
The effect of burnout is astronomical. We see a lack of engagement of our healthcare providers and professionals. When we lose this, it’s no surprise that our effectiveness as leaders and professionals goes down. There is a general disengagement from important things, and this leads to decreased quality of care, medical errors, and decrease in satisfaction for both patients and providers.

What role do leaders in healthcare play to influence the current unrest?
I believe with my whole heart that leadership matters. The way that leaders address this problem will help correct this problem. Think about working in a situation where you were able to flourish, usually you had a leader who created that situation. What you do as a leader makes a difference and can change the way people feel. The way you invest in people as a leader makes a big difference as well.

How can being aware of leadership styles help you communicate more effectively?
One thing I have found useful is the leadership index profile, DISC, to learn more about how you show up as a leader. Everybody has a preferred style and can learn about how they communicate and interact. When in a leadership role, it’s not about you, but about the people that you lead. You must ask how you can focus on the people you work with to communicate better and get the best out of them. Being flexible is one of the most important aspects of leadership.

How has your experience as an Army officer helped you personally avoid burnout?
We need to know who we are as leaders to help us align what our values are with the way we come to work. When we do that, it creates resilience and the ability to avoid burnout. I often looked to my own leaders, reflected on who I was as a leader, and committed to a simple leadership philosophy – It’s not about me and what I need, but what the people I lead need to be successful.

How can leaders use vulnerability and reflection to foster trust and safety?
Ultimately, it’s all about trust. When trust is increased, performance is increased. I never want to create a situation where the people who work for me don’t feel like they can speak up.

What steps can healthcare systems and leaders take to stay focused on a culture of wellness and to avoid burnout?
The best way to combat burnout is by creating teams that thrive together. First, grow as a leader and take time to self-reflect and develop. Second, leadership at the organizational level needs to invest time and resources to influence other leadership in the organization. Third, learn from each other inter-professionally and as a group – be vulnerable, share, learn and grow. If an organization follows these steps, it can make a dramatic difference on company culture.

What successes have you seen with a shift in organizational culture?
A shared experience, shared culture, and shared understanding of how to communicate can help a company immensely. The attitudes of leadership and the collective approach of the company can change and break down the things that cause burnout.

Do you have any final thoughts to share?
To me, combatting burnout is one of the most important endeavors we have in medicine. We must change things and do better. That’s why I’m committed to dedicating the rest of my career to this purpose.

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