The Surprising Way to Protect Yourself From Burnout

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By Michael Lee Stallard

In recent years the Mayo Clinic has been experimenting with programs that bring physicians together in groups to discuss issues related to their profession. The experiments have been promising in terms of reducing burnout.  This is important because more than half of physicians in the U.S. show at least one sign of burnout (burnout has been shown to contribute to medical errors).

The Mayo Clinic’s most recent program to bring physicians together is called “COMPASS” (Colleagues Meeting to Promote and Sustain Satisfaction).  COMPASS brings self-formed groups of 6-8 academic internal medicine physicians together for meals every two weeks.   Each participating physician receives $20 per meal.  The terms of COMPASS require participants to begin the meals with a 15-minute discussion on assigned issues related to the physician experience.  Assigned topics included work-life balance, medical mistakes, meaning at work and resiliency.

After comparing the results of a control group of 61 physicians and an intervention group of 64 physicians (i.e. the physicians who participated in COMPASS), the study’s authors, Colin P. West, MD, Ph.D, et al, concluded that study participants experienced statistically significant improvements in multiple domains of wellbeing and satisfaction.

Dr. West recently shared with me that at present approximately 1,100 of the Mayo Clinic’s 3,700 physicians and staff scientists participate in COMPASS.

Could something as simple as regularly having a meal together to discuss work experience-related issues help reduce burnout?  It seems too simple doesn’t it?  Although there several factors that contribute to burnout, there is good reason to believe connection practices such as having regular meals with colleagues is provides some degree of protection.

Wired to Connect

In my most recent book, Connection Culture, I lay out the scientific evidence that connection makes us smarter, happier, healthier and more productive.  Amy Banks, MD, 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 Clam (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. acronym, it’s easy to see why physicians participating on the Mayo Clinic’s COMPASS program would report fewer signs of burnout.  The regular meals with colleagues meets their need for connection by helping them feel calm and accepted, helping them resonate in conversations with their colleagues and giving them greater energetic to tackle the considerable workload physicians have today, especially with the changing landscape of healthcare insurance reform and moving to electronic medical records.

Changing Cultures to Promote Connection

The decades old push for productivity in organizations has had some unintended consequences.  Squeezing out time to connect with colleagues over lunch makes people more vulnerable to disengagement, burnout, anxiety and depression.

Do your team, department and organization’s cultures promote connection over lunch or do you feel pressure to have lunch in your office and if you go to lunch you feel people look at you as if you’re 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 the Mayo Clinic for its efforts to improve its culture with programs like COMPASS.  It’s another reason why the Mayo Clinic is rated the #1 hospital overall in the nation.

Michael Lee Stallard and HRDQ-U are hosting a webinar May 24th at 2pm ET. Save your seat here!

Michael Lee Stallard is President of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership training and consulting firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a co-founder of He speaks and teaches at a wide variety of organizations including Google, Johnson & Johnson, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, NASA, Qualcomm, Scotiabank, and the U.S. Treasury Department. Texas Christian University created the TCU Center for Connection Culture based on Michael’s work.

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