Physician Well-Being During the COVID-19 Crisis, Part 5: Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

By: Jason Horay
3 Minute Read

Physicians and their practices across the country feel the impact of COVID-19 every day, and the decisions physician leaders make now in the face of the pandemic will impact their future success. These decisions aren’t always easy, and the stakes are often high. According to a new study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, as a physician leader, you are deeply responsible for the well-being of those who report up to you. A team of researchers led by Dr. Lotte Dyrbye demonstrated a significant correlation between poor leadership behaviors and burnout in Mayo Clinic employees.

To be an effective leader for your practice during times of crisis, it’s important to have a reliable toolbox of habits and identified character strengths to draw from.

Paul DeChant MD, MBA, and healthcare consultant maintains that, “The pandemic has created a ‘VUCA’ environment like we’ve never seen before that impacts all healthcare workers and requires values-driven adaptive leadership for our communities to weather this storm.”

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and the more effectively physician leaders can identify and reduce the impact of a VUCA environment, the better their chances are of emerging from it successfully. Here is how the VUCA principles translate to current COVID-19 challenges:

  • Clinical and epidemiological information is changing at speeds we rarely encounter, hour by hour.
  • We’ve never encountered this pathogen before, so we are in uncharted waters, unable to predict the impact of our actions or what will come next.
  • Faced with multiple compounding forces, we are struggling to identify the cause-and-effect impacts at all levels—individual to international—on healthcare and on our lives.
  • New information evolves rapidly and is confounded by mixed messages from various sources. It seems like we are feeling our way through a fog when instead we need clarity to chart the course ahead.

Environments like this can significantly exacerbate burnout, and without relief, a workforce is likely to experience any or all of the six classic drivers of burnout: work overload, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and conflicting values.

As a leader, it’s important that you communicate across the organization clearly and frequently, explain your decisions, and tie them back to your organization’s mission, vision, and values. Dr. DeChant suggests these five ways to mitigate workforce burnout and help navigate employees successfully through an unsettling VUCA world:

  • Be visible. Break out of committee meetings and conference rooms as much as possible to spend more time in clinical areas observing the work and communicating with clinicians. This face time can go a long way toward mitigating doubt and building trust.
  • Provide resources. Do everything you can to provide your clinicians the staffing, equipment, and supplies they need now and will need later. As you work to anticipate clinician needs and follow through with fulfilling them, your leadership shows.
  • Empower decision-making at the point of care. Rein in the micromanaging. While at times you may feel out of control, trying to enforce tight control can demoralize your clinicians and result in bad decisions. People in the midst of chaos often have more insight into problems than leaders do, and they typically have great solutions. Trust them.
  • Express gratitude. Take every opportunity to thank your teams; anything from a quick handwritten card to broad public acknowledgement can do the trick. Your people are going way above and beyond, risking their health and potentially their families’ health to serve their patients. Showing your gratitude will further establish and maintain their respect, loyalty, and determination.
  • Anticipate short- and long-term changes. Pull back from the immediate crisis to look around and begin identifying and assessing next steps. It’s not too early. Looking to next week, next month, and next year is smart and can instill a sense of confidence and control.

Another way to reinforce leadership and problem-solving abilities is to identify your character strengths. Character strengths are positive parts of your personality that impact how you think, feel, and behave, and according to the VIA Institute on Character, scientists have identified 24 character strengths that we all have the capacity to express. Knowing and applying your dominant character strengths is the key to you being your best self which in turn, can reinforce your abilities to lead and problem solve. Click here to take the institute’s character strength survey and discover your unique character strengths profile, and lean on those strengths in crisis times.

Much rides on how well your organization comes out of this VUCA environment. Workforces are challenged by exhaustion and waning morale, and they’re looking to you for leadership. Be ready to spend more time and effort supporting your clinicians, communicating, providing resources, empowering decision making, expressing thanks, and strategizing next steps. Discover your character strengths for handling stress and life challenges and developing relationships with those who matter most to you, including your employees. While disruption and uncertainty could break an organization, they can be opportunities to nimbly pivot to a successful recovery. The strength and effectiveness of your leadership could make all the difference.

If you have questions about these strategies or how we can support the well-being of your employees further, please contact me at jason.horay@curi.com.


Jason Horay
Jason Horay is Curi’s Manager of Health Strategy and Well-Being, based in Raleigh, NC.
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