Staff burnout and compassion fatigue are leading managerial issues. You may recognize the symptoms in individual members of your staff: exhaustion and depression, high levels of conflictive behavior, distraction and detachment. In a smaller organization, isolated occurrences are – if not easy – at least possible to address before quality of care is compromised. In a larger organization (and in particularly stressful settings like critical and emergency care), both recognition and counteractive measures prove more difficult. Burnout among physicians and staff members begins to permeate the entire organization, affecting structure and efficacy in grave and challenging ways. Administrators must be as familiar with symptoms of the much broader problem of organizational fatigue.
1. Interpersonal Conflict
You may notice that teamwork suffers – what once may have run smoothly is now challenged by distractions and errors that never occurred before. Staff members who once worked well enough together now get in each other’s way. Relationships seem to be in constant flux, with high levels of conflict over low-level concerns. In fact, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, staff members may demonstrate outright aggression towards others, whether co-worker or patient. Management may have to contend with increased staff complaints regarding other team members. In other words, it may seem that you’ve staffed the organization with the most incompatible people possible. Looking to replace the most contentious members is only to address the symptom of much more far-reaching problem.
2. Deteriorating Performance
You may notice that more staff are absent. Whether due to the recurring colds and infections that burnout sufferers contend with or due to avoidance of an unhappy work environment, decreased reliability is a big red flag for organizational fatigue. Other performance dives may come in the form of missed deadlines or tasks left incomplete. "Burnout may result in in quality of care given to patients and physiological or physical illness," say Sheila Scutter and Melissa Goold in an article for the Australian Physiotherapy Association. High levels of distractibility and depersonalization can lead to more injuries as well, so keep an eye on your Worker's Comp numbers.
3. Managerial Challenges
Complaints from management may be well founded if organizational fatigue is a problem. Finding staff to cover shifts, mediating conflict, and fielding staff dissatisfaction take time and resources. Worse, staff experiencing burnout are much more likely to leave in search of another workplace and even the healthcare profession altogether. High turnover rates may be a chronic problem for the organization. Individual staff members will run interference in one way or another across the board. Resistance to change and a lack of flexibility make management difficult and sometimes impossible. Worse, staff tend to have a lack of respect for management if the organization is suffering from a negative environment. If you're finding your staff uncooperative and hostile, you definitely have a problem.
Fortunately, there are some great studies out there that indicate ways to combat organizational fatigue. Mindfulness training, structured emotional support, and even art therapy have been shown to reduce these symptoms and get to the root of the problem. Any program to engage the staff in shared reflection of common experiences - including that of burnout itself - may be exactly what it takes to pull your organization out of the fire. Best, you'll reignite the passion - and compassion - of the staff.
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