What Mayo Clinic Discovered About Burnout

November 16, 2016
Mike Stallard

Could something as simple as regularly having a meal with colleagues to discuss work experience-related issues help reduce burnout? It seems too simple doesn't it? Although several factors contribute to burnout, there is good reason to believe connection practices such as taking time to talk with others over lunch or dinner provides a measure of protection. It is certainly having that desired effect at Mayo Clinic.

In recent years the Mayo Clinic recognized that the increasing complexity of medicine made physicians feel more isolated, which is known to be a factor contributing to burnout. While lower than the national rate*, a 2015 Mayo Clinic survey showed 40% of its physicians reported at least one sign of burnout. To reduce isolation and burnout, Mayo Clinic began experimenting with programs that brought physicians together in groups to discuss issues related to their profession. Results were promising so they’ve continued to experiment and improve upon what they’ve learned.

The most recent program is named “COMPASS” (Colleagues Meeting to Promote and Sustain Satisfaction). COMPASS brings self-formed groups of 6-8 physicians together for meals every two weeks and provides $20 to each participant to cover the cost of the meal. The terms of COMPASS require participants to begin the time together with a 15-minute discussion on assigned issues related to the physician experience, such work-life balance, medical mistakes, meaning at work and resiliency.

After studying a control group of 61 physicians and comparing it to the results of an intervention group of 64 physicians, the study’s authors, Colin P. West, MD, Ph.D, et al, concluded study participants experienced statistically significant improvements in multiple domains of wellbeing and satisfaction. Dr. West recently shared with me that 1,100 of Mayo Clinic’s 3,700 physicians and staff scientists presently participate in COMPASS. He said 97% of participating respondents have indicated that COMPASS is valuable.

Wired to Connect

In Connection Culture, I lay out the scientific evidence that connection makes us smarter, happier, healthier and more productive. Amy Banks, M.D., author of an excellent recent book titled Wired to Connect, uses the acronym “C.A.R.E.” to summarize the relational benefits of connection. Dr. Banks is a former instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is presently the director of advanced training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

C.A.R.E. summarizes four parts of the neural pathway for connection, with each pathway representing an aspect of relationships. The four pathways are as follows:

  • Calm - Helps people feel calm via the smart vagus nerve.
  • Accept - Helps people feel accepted via the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
  • Resonate - Helps people resonate with others via the brain’s mirroring system.
  • Energy - Helps give people energy via the brain’s dopamine reward pathway.

Using Dr. Bank’s C.A.R.E. framework, it’s easy to see why physicians participating in Mayo Clinic’s COMPASS program would report fewer signs of burnout. Regular meals with colleagues help meet the physicians’ need for connection which makes them feel calm and accepted, helps them resonate in conversations with their colleagues and gives them greater energy to tackle the considerable workload physicians have today, especially given the changing landscape of healthcare reform and the added administrative burden required to convert the industry to electronic medical records.

Changing Cultures to Promote Connection

The decades-old push for productivity in organizations has had unintended consequences. Workloads in most professions have increased at a time when attitudes have changed to effectively squeeze out time to connect with colleagues. The result is that greater workloads and less connection is making people more vulnerable to disengagement, burnout, anxiety and depression.

Ask yourself: Does my team’s culture promote connection, including going out for lunch to catch up with colleagues, or does it pressure people to eat lunch at their desks while continuing their work? If an individual goes out for a social lunch, do people brand him or her as a slacker?

It’s time for leaders to encourage people in the workplace to take time to connect. Individuals and organizations perform better when they do. I applaud Mayo Clinic for its initiatives such as COMPASS that strengthen culture and protect people from burnout. It’s intentional efforts like this to improve culture that have made Mayo Clinic the #1 rated hospital overall in the nation.

Medscape and Mayo Clinic/American Medical Association national studies show more than 50% of physicians report one sign of burnout.

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Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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