When Grit Isn’t Enough: Protection from Burnout and Suicide

December 7, 2021
Mike Stallard

By Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard

Mike Ivy is not someone you would expect to contemplate taking his own life.

His experience and accomplishments communicate grit and resilience. A trauma, critical care and acute care surgeon by training, Dr. Ivy grew up in the U.S. Navy. His father was a submarine sailor; Mike joined the Navy to pay for medical school and served nine years active duty. Following the Navy, he completed a fellowship at Yale in surgical critical care then held a series of increasingly senior leadership positions at hospitals in Connecticut. Presently, Dr. Ivy is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the Yale New Haven Health System, which comprises more than 26,000 employees, including 6,685 medical staff.

We first met Dr. Ivy in June 2019 when he was interim CEO of Bridgeport Hospital. After hearing us speak at Yale New Haven Health System’s Annual Directors Meeting, he brought us in that fall to lead a workshop on cultivating a culture of connection. Katie and I were inspired by the respect the Bridgeport Hospital leadership team had for Dr. Ivy and the connection they felt to him, and by his desire to enhance connection in the work environment so that each person could thrive and do his or her best work. Currently we’re working with Dr. Ivy and his colleagues on connection culture leadership training for a group of physician leaders and nurse leaders at Yale New Haven Hospital.

Dr. Ivy is an outstanding leader. He’s also an example to all of us that getting help when stress or adversity is taking a toll on your outlook on life is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of wisdom, courage and strength.

In this podcast interview with Becker’s Hospital Review, Dr. Ivy recounts his experience. It happened during a period earlier in his career when his leadership responsibilities increased while fewer colleagues were available to help carry the load. He felt the ongoing stress of being stretched thin and not wanting to let others down. He began to burn out and so did his colleagues. Although he prided himself on being able to solve problems, he couldn’t see a way to address the people shortage given financial constraints facing the hospital. In addition, Dr. Ivy felt a sense of guilt from being away from home so much and missing important family events. Gone was a joy he previously experienced in life. Eventually, he lost hope that things were going to get better. He began to experience suicidal thoughts and developed a plan about how to do that.

At this critical juncture, Dr. Ivy recalled hearing in medical school that when someone begins to develop a plan to commit suicide, it’s time to get professional help. He reached out for help. “I started seeing a therapist,” he explained in the interview. “Therapy works. It worked for me. It helped me a lot… tremendously. It takes some time. I think you have to recognize that you are worth the time every week—whether it’s a few hours a week or an hour a week. If you stick with it and are open during the discussions, you can get better. And I did. I came out of it and have gone on and had a good career.”

Dr. Ivy’s experience is certainly relevant to people who work in healthcare today. The ongoing stress they experience during the pandemic makes them more vulnerable to emotional health issues. According to one recent research study, 51% of healthcare workers said their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic and another 42% said their day-to-day lives have suffered during the pandemic. Because 1 in 5 individuals working in healthcare have quit their jobs during the pandemic, those who’ve remained are carrying a heavier workload. Dr. Ivy shares his story and encourages those in healthcare who are struggling with emotional health issues to seek therapy because he knows firsthand that it works.

Connectedness to reduce burnout and suicide

The last time I (Michael) wrote about the role that increasing relational connection can play in addressing burnout and suicide was in early 2020. In “Boost Connectedness to Reverse the Rise of Suicides in America,” I described the impact that having a lack of sufficient connection can have on us and shared how the Centers for Disease Control adopted “connectedness” as a strategic direction in its efforts to reduce suicides in America.

I included a personal story about a friend of mine who committed suicide and how the final time I had seen him, he had smiled and waved at me from across a crowded room. If there was something wrong, he would have shared it with me, or so I thought. Had I missed something?

I shared insights from Dr. Ted George, a neuroscientist and practicing psychiatrist. Suicidal individuals tend to feel lonely or isolated, and overwhelmed with emotions. On the outside, though, they may look like nothing is wrong, so people around them may be unaware of the emotional turmoil they are experiencing. Suicidal patients who managed to find a way to dig their way out of despair initially felt that talking was a waste of time. Yet they came to realize that talk therapy helped them “find new roads they never knew were there” and provided a “switch to turn on a light at the end of a dark tunnel,” replacing hopelessness with a vision for how to live.

A critical time for connection

According to research, physicians, lawyers, engineers and scientists tend to be the loneliest professions, and that makes them especially vulnerable to emotional health issues. But they are not the only ones. Loneliness is a subjective feeling; you can be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues and still feel profoundly lonely. Loneliness is a stressor because our brain perceives the lack of social support as a threat. And when our body shifts into a state in which it is on guard to react to a threat and stays on alert indefinitely, then our physical health suffers too.

Many people today are struggling. This is to be expected, given we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has dramatically altered our everyday lives, boosting stress, loneliness and social isolation. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be with us for the foreseeable future as the coronavirus continues to mutate into more transmissible and potentially harmful variants. As of Dec. 7, 2021, the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S. alone has topped 788,300 and more than 5,261,800 individuals have died worldwide.

Grief, trauma and considerable change have touched all of us in some respect at a time when our ability to connect with others in the ways we were used to has been curtailed. Enduring the pandemic has highlighted or reinforced how much we need connection and supportive relationships, especially during times when grit isn’t enough. None of us can get through life’s inevitable sustained times of adversity alone. And we shouldn’t want to.

This is a critical time to stay connected to others, for the sake of our own health, and so that we can effectively reach out to support others. Connection and resilience practices we’ve written about in the past, including sharing our weekly highs and lows, never worrying alone, serving others, staying physically active, engaging in prayer/meditation, and regularly taking time to think about what we’re grateful for, help us be our best selves so that we can thrive. These practices also help strengthen our emotional health so we can be a positive force in the lives of our families, friends, colleagues and community.

Please, if you are considering suicide or someone you know is, don’t stay silent. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or reach out to your physician or an emotional health professional.

If your organization is seeing signs that people are struggling, let’s talk. In recent years, we have been contacted by several organizations in healthcare, education and the U.S. armed services that were specifically concerned about suicides in their ranks. We have helped train their leaders on how to cultivate relational cultures of connection that help people become smarter, happier, more productive, and more resilient to cope with stress. You can reach us at mike@connectionculture.com or 203-422-6511.

About the Authors

Katharine P. Stallard is a partner of Connection Culture Group and a contributing author to Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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.

You may also like

Join the conversation