The Relationship Between Leadership and Burnout

An illness has been sweeping through our nation’s health care system. It has struck hundreds of thousands, infecting millions. It is rewriting the entire script that providing care is based on, causing many leaders to look for band-aid solutions that do not address the underlying cause of the issue. No, this article isn’t about COVID-19.

It’s about burnout.


While the impact of COVID-19 definitely exacerbated the effects of burnout, burnout’s grip on health care started far before the pandemic. Recent data show that burnout currently affects 42% of physicians and 33% of nurses nationwide1,2. Additionally, 50% of nurses are considering leaving a profession that is already understaffed3. Physicians too are looking to leave, causing an alarming spike in burnout to those who decide to stay. Health care leaders need a solution, and they need it fast.

For some, that solution has come from adjusting their leadership style. A Mayo Clinic study in 2015 revealed that “the leadership qualities of physician supervisors appear to impact the well-being and satisfaction of individual physicians working in health care organizations”. In fact, they found that with each one point increase in the mean composite leadership rating (meaning the leader’s rating improved), they saw a 3.3% decrease in the likelihood of burnout (P<.001) and a 9.0% increase in the likelihood of satisfaction in the physicians they supervised4

So what leadership style is better than the rest? In a similar study on nurses, it was found that rewarding, transformational leadership was negatively correlated to emotional exhaustion and depersonalization whereas passive, laissez-faire style leadership was found to be positively correlated with the same traits5. Transformational leadership is defined by the American Psychological Association as leadership that builds personal and social identification among its members with the mission and goals of the leader and organization6. This is an important factor of good leadership: individuals that identify with your goals, can see their impact on said goal, and see their value within the team are more often to be fulfilled by their work. Fulfillment is burnout’s antithesis. It creates happiness, motivation, and an excitement for the future; all things we need to live healthy lives. If you can provide a workplace that promotes a healthy lifestyle, your care teams will see greater contentment in their careers as a result.

To bring some fulfillment to your teams, here are four key tips you can use to start:

  1. Name three values that are important for your care teams. It’s important for these values to reflect not only what you are trying to accomplish (i.e. exceptional patient care) but also how you wish your team to interact with each other. An example of this would be collaboration. By making one of your values collaboration, you can convey to your care teams to be more collaborative in the care process with patients, working with them in creating a plan of care that works with their lifestyle. It also conveys that teamwork, communication, and clarity amongst the team will be an important focus from here on out. The key here is simplicity – keeping to three values is important as any more would be too complex or hard to account for every day, as you will see in the next tip.
  2. Find actionable ways to incorporate these values into what they do every day. This is the most important step. In order for your teams to truly connect with your values, you have to show your own commitment to the values put in place. Keeping with our collaboration example, find ways to promote collaboration, either through implementing time for teams to meet in professional and recreational settings, or utilizing new, team-based technology. The best way to do this is to ask your team: how can we help you meet and sustain these values? By making them part of the decision making process is a great way to get them on board with these changes and look for their own ways to incorporate these values into their day-to-day life.
  3. Find ways to promote growth for your teams. At first, implementing your values will be enough to meet this tip. Working hand-in-hand with your clinicians to create and implement values that bring them closer to your mission is a great growth mindset and a good way to start investing in your care teams. Once this is achieved, however, it is important to continue to invest in your team’s success. Leaders that promote growth in their teams and help their clinicians in increasing their skill sets create a culture of support that leaves members feeling understood and cared for. This ultimately leads to greater engagement, and paired with the new skills acquired, will make for a more efficient and capable care team.
  4. Promote well-being. There is only so much you can do during working hours to support and build up your care teams. Ultimately, a balance must be made between work and rest, and promoting that amongst your teams is a major priority. Make sure when your clinicians leave their work, all work gets left in the clinic or hospital. A clean break between work and home is essential for your clinicians to be able to recuperate and return recharged. While at work, make it clear that you support and prioritize their well-being. That can be done by providing mental health services or coaching to provide skills capable of handling heavy emotional burdens common in medicine.

One good thing that came out of the pandemic is that it shone a light on how burned out our health care workers are. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, there are various practices that leaders can try to help curb the effects of burnout. For now, the best thing that we can do is to keep the conversation going.

On May 19, our founder, Dr. Stephen Beeson, will be hosting a roundtable discussion about leader actions that can reduce burnout in teams. For more information, please click here.

What measures are you taking to reduce the burden felt by your care teams? Let us know in the comments down below or on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Resources Cited:

    1. Shanafelt, T. D., West, C. P., Sinsky, C., Trockel, M., Tutty, M., Satele, D. V., Carlasare, L. E., & Dyrbye, L. N. (2019). Changes in Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Integration in Physicians and the General US Working Population Between 2011 and 2017. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 94(9), 1681–1694. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.10.023
    2. Morgantini, L. A., Naha, U., Wang, H., Francavilla, S., Acar, Ö., Flores, J. M., Crivellaro, S., Moreira, D., Abern, M., Eklund, M., Vigneswaran, H. T., & Weine, S. M. (2020). Factors Contributing to Healthcare Professional Burnout During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Rapid Turnaround Global Survey. MedRxiv, 2020.05.17.20101915. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.17.20101915
    3. RNnetwork Nurse Survey Finds Half of Nurses Consider Quitting. (2017, February 28). RNnetwork – Travel Nursing Blog. https://rnnetwork.com/blog/rnnetwork-nurse-survey/
    4. Shanafelt, T. D., Gorringe, G., Menaker, R., Storz, K. A., Reeves, D., Buskirk, S. J., Sloan, J. A., & Swensen, S. J. (2015). Impact of Organizational Leadership on Physician Burnout and Satisfaction. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 90(4), 432–440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2015.01.012
    5. Kanste, O., Kyngäs, H., & Nikkilä, J. (2007). The relationship between multidimensional leadership and burnout among nursing staff. Journal of Nursing Management, 15(7), 731–739. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2934.2006.00741.x
    6. Leadership styles using rewards and shared values help platoons perform well in simulations. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2003/03/leadership

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