It’s a familiar statement in the world of medicine: Doctors do a good job taking care of others, but do a lousy job taking care of themselves.
But for those who work in health care, that statement also covers nurses and clinical assistants, lab workers, even staff such as office administrators, chaplains and custodians, among others.
A new study, led by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor Chris Cunningham and local physician Dr. Mukta Panda, professor and assistant dean for medical student education at the UTC College of Medicine, will not only try to find out the whys of that situation, but also learn how those in health care find ways to maintain motivation and meaning in their jobs while working in an environment that can burn a person out faster than a short candle.
“So much of the research today on what hospital environments do to workers is very negatively biased, so it’s all focused on how being in a hospital burns you out and how stressful it is and how dangerous it is. We don’t want to downplay that at all because those risks are real,” says Cunningham, UC Foundation professor and a member of the graduate faculty in psychology.
“For us, we’re interested in trying to shine a light on the other end of the spectrum because, while it is true that there’s a lot of burnout, there’s a lot of people who don’t. And the question is: Why not?”
Results from the study, funded by more than $100,000 in money from Chattanooga’s Yium Foundation, will focus more on techniques that are working in health care environments, instead of ones that aren’t, says Panda, a practicing internist who has spent years promoting and studying resiliency and well-being in health care workers.
“There’s a lot of conversation about what is not right, and yet we see physicians and we see nurses and we see health care professionals who still seem to be connected to that meaning,” she explains. “This particular study is more about the positive. What is it that allows us to keep that intrinsic motivation and overcome and bounce back?’”
Including everyone who works in the world of health care is critical to the study, she says, because creating a positive environment must include everyone who is part of it.
“It is about a health care team; it is about creating a work environment where there is psychological safety, where people feel they are valued, they’re affirmed and they are important to the overall shared covenant of coordinated efficient patient care,” Panda says.
“We also want to create awareness that the attitude and role modeling and the attentiveness of every member of the team influences what the outcome of that team is.”
The study will include both written surveys and personal interviews with employees at Erlanger Hospital, where Panda is affiliated. The surveys will include such questions as: “How do you derive a sense of meaning in your life more generally? What’s your perspective when the going gets tough? How do you tend to perceive information?
Speaking with employees also is a key element, Panda says.
“There is definite value in the narrative and the stories, and I think that’s where focused interviews come in,” she says.
Hopefully, Cunningham says, the study’s results will help not only people already in health care, but those coming into the field as well, such as first-year medical students and even undergraduates who plan to go into medicine.
“These folks are already developing patterns of poor self-care by the time they get to medical school,” he explains. “They’re so focused on their studies and becoming a doctor, but they’re not doing a great job of managing their own health and their own well-being. The problem with that is that lifestyle choices become habits and routine really quickly.
“We think there’s an opportunity here to learn from people who have done a really good job of keeping things balanced and managing the challenges of working in these environments.”