Burnout in the health sector
Burnout has been defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. There are many steps which we progress through from experiencing stress to being burnt out. However, burnout generally occurs when the demands being placed upon a person exceed the resources which they have available to deal with the stressors.
Many leaders experience burnout in their careers. According to the Health and Social Care Committee[i], NHS staff may be 50% more likely to experience high levels of work-related stress compared with the general population. Unfortunately, workforce burnout was a significant issue for the NHS workforce long before covid-19, and the proportion of health sector staff suffering from work-related stress has been increasing. As well as the negative impact which work-related stress can have on an individual’s health and wellbeing, it is also linked with higher rates of absenteeism, intention to quit, and staff turnover. This in turn has a negative impact on organisational performance, financial performance, patient satisfaction and care quality.
The ‘VUCA’ world and how resilience can help us to navigate it
Increasingly we live in what has been described as a ‘VUCA’ world. In other words, a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Traditional management methods are no longer sufficient to address the volume of change we are seeing. A new way of leading requires leaders who can respond to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity with vision, understanding, courage and adaptability.
Unfortunately, once a person has experienced burnout, they may be more susceptible to it in the future. This is one of the reasons why it is helpful to understand how we can increase our own resilience, as well as the resilience of our colleagues. Resilience coaching teaches us that it’s the way we respond to events that controls how they affect us, not the events themselves. Resilience enables us to maintain composure and react calmly to VUCA, helping us maintain a positive mindset to ensure we’re able to respond appropriately to problems when they arise.
In these VUCA times, it is more important than ever to have resilient employees who are comfortably able to navigate change and uncertainty. Being resilient reduces our chance of experiencing burnout, and we are more likely to be engaged and productive at work. Therefore, employers are increasingly looking to hire “resilient” employees with the ability to adapt to a constantly changing environment.
What is resilience?
Resilience isn’t something that we are born with, and we can all learn how to respond in a more resilient way to challenging circumstances. There are many definitions of resilience. However, I find the following one particularly useful.
“Resilience involves responding adaptively and resolutely to tough times and emerging from them stronger, wiser and more capable”.
I’d like to draw your attention to the word ‘emerging’ in this definition. You may have come across descriptions of resilience which refer to the ability to ‘bounce back’, implying a quick and effortless recovery. Instead of ‘bouncing back’, a cognitive-behavioural perspective on resilience prefers the description ‘coming back from adversity’.Developing resilience involves experiences of suffering and struggling.
According to a cognitive behavioural perspective on resilience, the most important factor affecting the development of resilience is the attitude you adopt to deal with adversity.
Even Stoic philosophers referred to this a long time ago. For example, you may have heard the quote: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgements about these things” (Epictetus, c. 50 – c. 135 AD). In other words, events don’t disturb us, we disturb ourselves by the views we hold about these events. Taking the time to increase your level of self-awareness, for example, understanding how you react under pressure and in particular situations, and developing coping mechanisms to deal with adversity in a more constructive way, can help you to build up your levels of emotional resilience.
The role of Emotional Intelligence in leadership performance
Emotional intelligence (EI) gained much publicity when Daniel Goleman published best-sellers on the topic in the mid-to late 1990’s[ii], [iii]. One of the most important findings Goleman presented was that emotional and social competencies are twice as important in contributing to excellence as pure intellect and expertise. Emotional competence is particularly central to leadership, a role whose essence is to get others to do their jobs effectively. Although this concept has been studied for the greater part of the twentieth century, this resulted in a lot of energy being directed to the study, understanding and application of the concept worldwide.
Based on numerous studies, the six emotional intelligence competencies and skills that consistently emerge as the most powerful predictors of leadership performance are:
- Accurate self-awareness
- The ability to manage emotions
- The ability to control emotions
- Responsible social interaction
- Optimism and positive thinking
- Happiness and self-motivation[iv]
Individuals who demonstrate significant strengths in these six areas are expected to be successful and inspiring leaders capable of being: people oriented, process oriented and organization oriented, as well as well grounded, action taking, participative and even tough-minded when they need to be.iv
Self-awareness is a strength[v]
People who are self-aware show an awareness of their own emotions, encourage others to give constructive feedback and positively act upon it, understand how their behaviour and actions impact upon others, and understand their strengths and development needs. In contrast, a person with low levels of self-awareness, is likely to overlook their emotions and feelings and is unlikely to spend time reflecting on how they react. Unable to filter their communication, they tend to say what they think and can appear unaware of the effect of their words or actions on others. They may also find it difficult to regulate their emotions or impulses, making others wary of them, especially if they appear to get angry or upset easily. As they are unlikely to have a good understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, they may shy away from tasks which they are capable of and take on tasks which would be better off being delegated to others.
Strategies of emotionally intelligent leaders
Accurate self-awareness and the ability to manage and control your emotions are emotional intelligence skills that consistently emerge among the top predictors of leadership performance. It is worth spending some time becoming aware of the emotions that underpin your behaviours. Without this awareness, emotions will tend to override your rational thinking and drive your actions.
More recent research[vi] has identified the following nine strategies of emotionally intelligent leaders:
- Monitor the emotional climate
- Express your feelings to motivate others
- Consider how your own behaviour influences others’ emotions
- Put yourself in others’ shoes
- Decipher the underlying emotional dynamics of a situation
- Reframe how you think about the situation
- Create optimal interpersonal boundaries
- Seek out others for help in managing emotions
- Help others develop their emotional intelligence abilities
Time for some self-reflection[vii]
Have you been feeling frustrated, irritated, impatient, or humiliated recently? Perhaps you have been stubbornly defending a particular situation or way of doing things. Or maybe you get defensive and/or refuse to take responsibility in particular situations. It may be worth taking some time to increase your self-awareness.
- Recall a recent situation where you found yourself feeling frustrated and/or defensive.
- Can you name the emotion that immediately preceded you getting frustrated and/or defensive?
- What do you think caused you to feel this way?
- Was there something that is important to you, which was violated, for example a value, interest, or motive?
How coaching can help to raise self-awareness and build resilience
During my 1-2-1 Executive Leadership Coaching Programme for health sector professionals, one of the six key areas we focus on is your emotional resilience. Better understanding what builds up your emotional resilience and what chips away at it, so you can cope more effectively with adversity and stressful situations, overcome challenges, and build strategies for success. To find out more contact me to book a discovery call.
Accredited Coach, Coaching Psychologist & Consultant
If you are interested in the topic of Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Performance, check out this video on my YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/j5WQr1CWyxw
The presentation formed part of an online event “Leadership in Healthcare & Emotional Resilience: Lessons from Covid-19” held on 10/06/2021. This event was delivered in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and the School of Business and Management (SBM) as part of the QMUL MSc course in Dental Public Health, Policy and Leadership. Find out more about the QMUL MSc course in Dental Public Health, Policy and Leadership: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/dph/ and https://youtu.be/NuebzmWgmeM
[i] House of Commons Health & Social Care Committee. Workforce burnout and resilience in the NHS and social care – Second Report of Session 2021-22 (published on 8 June 2021). Downloaded from: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/6158/documents/68766/default/
[ii] Goleman, D (1995) Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, New York
[iii] Goleman, D (1998) Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, New York
[iv] Bar-On, R (2006) The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI), Psicothema, 18, supplement, pp 13-25
[vi] Cherniss, C. and Roche, C.W. Leading with Feeling: Nine Strategies of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
[vii] Zweifel, T.D. (2019) Leadership in 100 Days, iHorizon, New York