Doctors should have personal coaches to prevent burnout

By Michael Woodhead

6 Aug 2019

Personal coaches are an effective way to reduce doctor burnout and should be provided by employers and institutions, the authors of a US study say.

A randomised controlled trial involving 88 doctors at the Mayo Clinic found that those allocated to six months of regular professional coaching sessions had significantly lower levels of emotional exhaustion, overall burnout, as well as improved quality of life and resilience scores compared to a control group.

The coaching was done by phone and involved a one hour initial session with an accredited non-medical professional coach followed by five half-hour coaching sessions every two to three weeks.

Coaching sessions were unscripted and tailored to suit to the circumstances of the individual doctor. They covered issues such as managing workload and relationships with colleagues, developing skills in working efficiently such as delegation, creating a good work-life balance and building up emotional support and social life activities.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic’s Program on Physician Well-Being said the findings from their pilot study showed that professional coaching should have a role in the medical workplace in addition to current approaches to burnout such as mentoring and peer support.

“The magnitudes of reduction in the emotional exhaustion score and in overall burnout were substantial  … and were likely to lead to a meaningful difference in rates of adverse outcomes,” they wrote in JAMA Internal Medicine.

They noted that coaching did not have impact on measures of depersonalisation or improvements in job satisfaction, engagement, or meaning in work, “highlighting the reality that coaching, while useful, is not a replacement for organisational efforts to improve the practice environment and address the underlying drivers of burnout and dissatisfaction among physicians,” they added.

The six month professional coaching program cost about A$2000 per person, and would be a worthwhile investment for institutions and employers, given the high costs of doctor burnout, they said.

“Professional coaching is widely used in industries outside of medicine and has been  demonstrated in studies of other professionals to enhance leadership and managerial and interpersonal skills and to foster personal growth,” they wrote.

They stressed that coaching was distinct from therapeutic interventions such as psychological counselling and mindfulness, and was best done by external sources  who could provide independent from institutional

“Coaching provided an avenue to assist individuals in their effort to navigate their professional life, work choices, and career direction and to build a capacity to influence organizational systems that affect their well-being,” they said.

“As such, coaching expands the framework of the types of offerings that organisations can provide to assist physicians both personally and professionally.”

9 themes for professional coaches:

Optimising meaning in work
Aligning values and priorities with work-related tasks; ensuring work activities align with the aspects of work perceived as most meaningful; reconsidering nonclinical roles.

Integrating personal and professional life
Sharing tasks with partner; meeting needs of aging parents; reducing work-home conflicts.

Building social support and community at work
Strategies to network with colleagues; taking breaks at work with colleagues; building peer relationships; addressing stressful relationships with colleagues.

Improving work efficiency
Steps to increase efficiency with email and other tasks: delegating tasks, setting boundaries with patients, collaborating with colleagues, and obtaining additional E-health record training.

Addressing workload
Prioritising and saying “no”; avoiding overscheduling; setting expectations; setting goals; establishing roles and responsibilities.

Building leadership skills
Building teams; changing management; influencing leaders; challenging conversations.

Pursuing hobbies and recreation
Finding time; discovering interests.

Engaging in self-care
Strategising to get exercise; eating healthy, attending to medical needs.

Strengthening relationships outside of work
Proactively scheduling social events with friends; spending more time with family; showing appreciation toward others; being grateful.

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