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Gray Matters

Advancing Workplace Well-Being in Abnormal Times

Kirk Brower

Summer 2022
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Is life back to normal? Sometimes it looks as though it is. Watching crowds of mostly unmasked fans at U-M football games last fall gave me a momentary sense of normalcy. But here in health care, things are not normal. We’re still dealing with this pandemic, continuing to treat COVID-19 patients, and struggling with staffing shortages. The cumulative effect of the last two years on our personal and professional lives has impacted our well-being.

People are tired of talking about burnout. What’s more important is how we can improve our well-being during abnormal times, especially when work has been so persistently stressful during the pandemic.  

Workplace well-being, defined as an optimal experience and quality of life at work, is the opposite of burnout. How can we improve workplace well-being at Michigan Medicine? The approach of the Wellness Office is to coordinate efforts at individual, work, and organizational levels.

As individuals, we can acknowledge that what many of us feel is a normal response to persistent stress over the last two years. Although not every health care professional will feel all these emotions, most of us are likely to experience some of these feelings from time to time:

  • Anxiety — about our health, our families, or practicing while exhausted
  • Anger — about people who aren’t vaccinated and whose lives we strive to save
  • Guilt — about not doing enough, not wanting to go to work, not feeling compassion, or not coping as well as we want
  • Grief — about losses of life and health, as well as the loss of normalcy
  • Helplessness or hopelessness as we wonder, “What’s the point? Is anything I’m doing making a difference? Does anyone care what I’m doing?”
  • Isolation — being alone with our feelings and disconnected. “Is anyone helping us?”

Such feelings are a normal response to an abnormal situation. It’s also normal to push our feelings away temporarily to get through the workday. Talking about them later with an empathetic family member, partner, friend, or counselor can decrease our sense of isolation.

illustration of workers relaxing and having fun at work

Acknowledging and talking about feelings, however, is not enough.

At the work level, feeling well and doing our best requires:

  • Feeling protected — not only protection from infection, but also protected break time at work to meet our basic needs. We also need time to disconnect and decompress from work to freely enjoy our personal time.  Feeling psychologically safe at work depends on a workplace climate where we feel comfortable expressing and being ourselves.
  • Feeling connected — we want to feel connected to our leaders and know that they hear us and care about us. And we need to be connected to the resources required for our work. When job demands outweigh the resources to do our work (e.g., staffing), we are prone to burning out.
  • Feeling respected — we need to feel valued personally for the work we do.

Most important at the organizational level is advancing a culture of well-being. Attending to the drivers of stress and burnout in the workplace are essential and require leadership to consider the impact on well-being when making decisions.

One initiative of the Wellness Office has been the formation of a Wellness Advocate Network, which meets twice monthly and consists of about 40 representatives from various departments (clinical and basic sciences), divisions, and disciplines (such as nurses, physician assistants, and medical assistants) to share best practices. The Wellness Office also invites leaders to some of the meetings to hear feedback from the advocates on issues and decisions affecting well-being. By listening openly and honestly, acknowledging feelings, and committing to action, the initiative allows for transparent, two-way communication between leaders and faculty, staff, and learners to improve well-being.  

In summary, the Wellness Office prioritizes workplace well-being to improve the lives of our patients, each other, and ourselves. It engages with leaders, faculty, staff, and learners across Michigan Medicine to put processes and structures in place to improve workplace well-being and continues to measure progress toward that goal. Improving our experience of caring for patients, educating learners, and making scientific discoveries will allow us to do our best work as well as achieve the mission of Michigan Medicine.

 

Kirk Brower, M.D., is chief wellness officer of Michigan Medicine and faculty director of the Michigan Medicine Wellness Office.