Healthcare News & Insights

Addressing staff burnout through ‘hierarchy of needs’ – 5 keys

Burnout is high among doctors, nurses and other clinical staff. If workers are at the end of their ropes, they can’t effectively take care of patients, so it’s essential for hospitals to do what they can to support clinical staff and reduce their stress. 

Facilities have tried a variety of approaches, from animal therapy to “renewal rooms” for nurses. But in many cases, reducing physician and nurse burnout can be as straightforward as addressing workers’ basic needs effectively.

A recent article in the American Journal of Medicine discusses a sample structure that hospitals can follow to fight burnout in staff based on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”

This concept is physically represented by a pyramid with various levels. The bottom level has a person’s most basic needs, which must first be fulfilled before addressing the needs at higher levels.

When applying this concept to physician and nurse burnout, there are five needs that must be addressed, in order, before clinicians can perform their jobs to the best of their abilities:

  1. Physical and mental health. If physicians and nurses are dealing with depression, the condition can often be exacerbated by job stresses and the emotional turmoil of seeing patients in pain or dying. In addition, clinical staffers often don’t have enough time to eat a healthy and balanced meal or go to the bathroom regularly during their shifts. To avoid these issues, it’s key to regularly evaluate their mental and physical health, offering them on-site resources if necessary. It’s also important to make it easy for staff to access fresh water, healthy foods and a comfortable place to sleep if necessary.
  2. Safety and security. Clinical staff can’t lower their stress in an environment where they’re scared of being hurt – whether its through patient violence or through injury while rushing to lift a patient with no support. Job security is also key here – a doctor or nurse can’t put their best efforts into patient care if they feel like their job is in danger every day. Addressing these needs involves an approach where employees are trained on how to de-escalate violent situations, and move and support patients safely. Security and additional staff members should be hired when necessary so safety isn’t compromised due to staffing issues. And with job security, be sure that any changes that impact people’s positions are as transparent as possible, and be honest when questions are asked.
  3. Respect. When people don’t feel respected at work, their performance and well-being suffer. That’s no different for physicians and nurses than it is for anyone. Clinical staff may feel as though no one respects their daily struggle on the hospital’s frontlines, from the highers-up to patients – and even their own colleagues. Nurses often feel disrespected by doctors, and female doctors are also treated poorly. Unaddressed technology issues can also make clinicians feel disrespected, including glitchy electronic health records (EHR) systems, phones and pagers that don’t work, and even parking garages that don’t always open when badges are swiped. To build a culture of respect, make strong policies against bullying from staff and patients – and enforce any consequences if issues are reported. Review how well your technology’s working, paying close attention to staff complaints, and fix the most severe issues ASAP.
  4. Appreciation and connection. Just like most people, physicians, nurses and other clinical staff want to feel appreciated for the work they do. Often, they’re at the receiving end of frustration, sadness and complaints instead of joy and celebration. They may also not be paid fairly for their work, which makes them feel even less appreciated. If there’s no acknowledgement of their efforts on any level, staff can quickly become disengaged and disinterested. Besides outward appreciation, clinicians also want to feel connected to their peers. Socialization is an important component to employee satisfaction, and social isolation can have a significant negative impact on a clinician’s mood. Besides a salary raise (if deserved), making clinicians feel more appreciated can be as simple as publicizing the positive outcome of a difficult procedure or treatment. And to build connection among staffers, create shared spaces in your hospital (like lounges) where clinicians can go to temporarily relax and chat with each other.
  5. Healing patients and contributing at the fullest of one’s ability. Once all the previous needs are met, physicians and nurses can fully concentrate on their No. 1 job: to care for patients. To keep clinical staff’s performance high, it’s vital to improve care delivery so there’s more face-to-face time between patients and doctors/nurses, and to cut the red tape so bureaucracy has little impact on the day-to-day practice of health care. It’s also a good idea to support mentoring relationships, pairing experienced clinicians with new workers in the field, and ongoing training/development for clinicians so they can expand their skillsets and better treat patients.

Hospitals that take the time to address these five essential needs of their clinical staff will find themselves well positioned in the battle against burnout.

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