How Do We Keep Physicians Healthy So They Can Keep Us Healthy? 3 Ways Leadership Training Will Curb Physician Burnout

How Do We Keep Physicians Healthy So They Can Keep Us Healthy? 3 Ways Leadership Training Will Curb Physician Burnout

Personally, I am grateful for my medical doctors. I appreciate all those years in school dealing with, what most would deem chaotic schedules, all because of their desire to help others. I certainly don’t want to think about what would happen without all of these dedicated individuals. But, it is time to think about it because Tait D. Shanafelt, MD states in this Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) article that “Numerous global studies involving nearly every medical and surgical specialty indicate that approximately 1 of every 3 physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time.” (September, 2009)

This is not good news for any of us. It deserves, or rather, demands our attention. The intent is certainly not to criticize and blame the physicians or the health care system. Instead, it is our job to find ways to support those who support us.


Burnout, for anyone, is when we are unable to recharge our batteries before going back into a stressful situation. In this context, that’s taking care of patients, or managing those who take care of patients. The energy keeps going out without a sufficient amount coming in to refresh the momentum, drive and desire to kick ass that day. Everyone deals with some level of stress in their lives and can relate to when they feel full of energy versus when they are drained. For many physicians, this stress level is elevated, and if there is no recharging, they may still be functioning but at a very low level. At any moment that can all come crashing down.

Dike Drummond, MD, in his article Physician Burnout: Why it’s not a Fair Fight” shares the dangers of physician burnout. (October, 2013)

The presence of physician burnout has been shown to

  • Decrease physician’s professionalism and the quality of medical care they provide
  • Increase medical errors and malpractice rates
  • Lower patient compliance and satisfaction with medical care
  • Increase rates of physician substance abuse, suicide and intent to leave practice (October, 2013)

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports (2018) that the suicide rate among male physicians is 1.41 times higher than the general male population. Among female physicians, the relative risk is even more pronounced — 2.27 times greater than the general female population.

Those exact people who dedicate their lives to helping others sometimes see no other alternative but to take their own.


It would be nice if there was an easy answer, if we could prescribe a pill to make it all better. However, just like many medical scenarios require multi-faceted approaches, it is the same in this situation. The whole person needs to be treated – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. When any of those four parts are ignored, which happens quickly in high-stress situations, that is when burnout is most likely to occur.

Many physicians feel an inordinate amount of pressure to always be right, always be “on’’ and to be the smartest person in the room. Often, when they fall down, it can feel like they can’t recover. This is why it’s important to finally get out in front of this issue with some prevention measures.

In his same article, Dr. Drummond listed several personal burnout prevention measures, including:

  • Self-awareness and mindfulness training
  • Learning effective leadership skills
  • Creating focus where possible on work activities that provide the most meaning
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • Healthy boundaries between work and non-work life areas (October, 2013)

Dr. Drummond also calls on the organization to take action knowing that any decrease in physician burnout will increase the quality of care, patient satisfaction, lower malpractice rates, and reduce physician and staff turnover. To accomplish that the organization would, among other measures:

  • State an outcome to value, track and support Physician Wellbeing
  • Monitor for physician burnout
  • Provide leadership skills training
  • Support flexibility in work hours
  • Create specific programs to support physicians suffering from burnout (October, 2013)

There are actions that can be taken that will lead to real results for our physicians to create a win for them and for their patients, their team members, their family, and the organization as a whole.

Here are three ways that Transformational Leadership Programs can help reduce physician burnout. While it may seem counter-intuitive to ask a stressed-out physician to take time to attend a leadership class, that class could literally be the difference between life and death, theirs or someone else’s. Unfortunately, personal and leadership development are not a primary focus in medical school, yet the skills learned give us the tools to navigate life. Here’s how:

  1. Self-Awareness. The most important person we will ever lead is ourselves. Frankly, most people aren’t very aware of why they think the way they do, make the choices they make or even why they believe what they believe. This is often true in the medical field because the emphasis is on external knowledge rather than inner knowing. Both are critical in treating the human though. We happent to be in an amazing time in history where science supports the benefits of self-awareness rather than contradicting it. Taking the time to step back from the external pressures of daily life to make an honest assessment of all the areas of our lives, and how we are handling each, can be very eye-opening. We become aware of the stories we are telling ourselves and can better determine whether the story is benefitting us or hurting us. For example, you might believe that you need to do everything yourself instead of using other resources available to you. When we can finally see the whole picture, and how we are creating the results we are experiencing, then we can develop real strategies to manage energy IN versus energy OUT. Then we’ll be able to maintain healthy relationship with ourselves and others.
  1. Awareness of Others. Once we get to know more about ourselves and what our stories are creating in our own lives, we will quickly be able to see the same in others. We learn that everyone is looking through the filter of their own stories. This allows us to understand how to communicate better with them and how to build an authentic relationship. For physicians, really diving into the human mind and emotions helps them connect better to their patients and to their team members. Utilizing behavioral patterns and techniques learned in transformational leadership programs, physicians discover that much of their stress is self-generated as opposed to being caused by others. This awareness allows for new ways to manage stress as well as experience more joy in their interactions and relationships, which in turn, allows them to replenish their energy stores during the day.
  1. Team Dynamics. Physicians are surrounded by a team, that when inspired, will have their backs. However, without mutual respect and trust between physician and staff, the stress increases and the quality of care potentially decreases. At a minimum, the working environment suffers. Through experiential team awareness processes used in transformational leadership programs, physicians, managers, and other team members, can experience what a high-functioning team feels and looks like. Then they’ll bring that back to the workplace. Quality communication is essential, and when we expand our awareness of self and others combined with learning effective team communications, we continue to cut stress and alleviate the likelihood of burnout.

Leadership is a practice. Much like being a physician, the more we practice the better we get at it. And the more we lead the whole person, the better the results for everyone involved.

High5 Leadership provides experiential leadership programs that treat the whole person and provides valuable tools and techniques to reduce the likelihood of physician burnout, while increasing the performance of the entire team. For more information contact us at and visit our website at