Whenever I get the urge to complain about the dreary year I’ve had stuck in my apartment half a world away from family and friends, I always pause and think, ‘Well, some people have had it much worse than me.’ Towards the top of my list are frontline health care workers.
I’m hardly alone in noting the unfathomable strain doctors, nurses, and support staff on the front lines of Covid face, but while we’ve all collectively cheered their dedication and bravery this year (and hopefully honored their sacrifices by obeying public health guidance), I doubt many of us have paused to consider exactly what mental and management tricks have helped them get through it all. I haven’t anyway.
Grit and professionalism can take you a long way, but as a fascinating recent HBR article from a pair of administrators at the hard-hit Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) lays out, leadership also matters. The article outlines the steps administrators took to help their staff weather a year of unrelenting challenges. It’s well worth a read in full if your team is struggling with burnout, but even if it’s just your own sanity and energy levels you’re worried about, the piece suggests a handful of useful tips.
1. Remind yourself you’re making a difference.
The difference between burnout and perseverance, the administrators note, is often a sense that what you do actually matters. That’s why MGH made sure that their staff got regular updates on Covid survivors after they left the hospital to remind them their heroic efforts had a real impact on patient outcomes.
If you don’t work in health care it can be harder to feel like your time wrangling spreadsheets or fine tuning branding has the same impact as literally saving lives, but if you want to avoid burnout you need to try. Leaders can remind their people of the difference their work makes — whether it’s a successful sales call paying someone else’s much needed salary or making the world a little more pleasant through great design — but individuals should also remind themselves their work matters too.
You might not be restarting hearts, but you are putting food on your family’s table, creating jobs, or otherwise helping our society function. It’s a hard year. Celebrate yourself for doing a job that needs doing.
2. Plug into your community.
Social distancing has made it a lonely year. Finding creative ways to plug back into your community even if you have to stay six feet away from people can help you avoid burnout.
“Our department launched weekly virtual ‘wellness’ sessions — generally not attended by leadership — in which employees could freely discuss whatever was on their minds without their managers listening in,” report the administrators who also initiated “a series of meetings where people in less hard-hit parts of the hospital could brainstorm ways to provide help and resources to the ED and other units most affected by Covid-19.”
This is a useful reminder to bosses that you need to proactively work to replace the sense of community that naturally arises when people see each other in person. It’s also a reminder to the rest of us that the best stress buster known to man is sitting around laughing (and sometimes complaining) with friends and colleagues.
3. Reconnect to your values.
A stack of studies indicates that perseverance doesn’t come from turning off your emotions and keeping a stiff upper lip. It comes from really caring about what you’re doing. The best way to dig deep and find energy reserves you didn’t know you had is to frame your actions as a way of living out your values.
That’s why the leadership at MGH made sure their teams saw the hospitals stated values and day-to-day functioning were aligned. “There is no surer path to a disillusioned workforce than the perception that those in charge are hypocrites,” they write. That’s very true. It’s also a useful reminder that finding space to remind yourself of your values and ways to live up to them is going to help you recharge more than all the bubble baths and long lunch breaks in the world (though those are nice too).
Looking for more nuts and bolts advice for leaders? The complete article is full of it.