5 Ways to Prevent Improvement Burnout

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It’s been five years since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law.

It was 15 years ago that the Institute of Medicine published its landmark “To Err Is Human” report.

Earlier this month, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) held its 27th Annual National Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care.

In other words, the current drive to improve the quality, accessibility, and cost-efficiency of healthcare in the United States has been underway for nearly three decades. In recent years — notably since passage of the ACA — we’ve seen the velocity and volume of those efforts pick up. That’s cause for excitement and optimism. But we also need to be careful to prevent burnout among our staffs—in both their day-to-day operations and their change efforts.

That’s especially true for those who work in the emergency department, where the stakes — and the passion for helping people — run high.

The theme for this year’s IHI National Forum was “Recharge.” It’s a concept I encourage you to keep in mind at this time of year, as you pause to reflect on how your organization performed against its 2015 improvement goals and begin planning for 2016. There is no more essential element to the success of your improvement initiatives than an energized, engaged, and motivated team.

I also want to share with you some ways to help recharge your department’s efforts and avoid what others in the healthcare field have called “improvement fatigue.”

  1. Celebrate progress. This one is obvious, but so important that I’ve placed it first. It’s easy to put off recognition until you have the time or opportunity to make if formal. Or to wait until you’ve met the big, overarching goal. Don’t. Recognize even small increments of improvement. If your team is facing disruption or uncertainty due to operational changes, let them know in real-time how much you appreciate their patience. How you do it doesn’t much matter — often a simple written message will do — as long as you make it meaningful.
  2. Reconnect with the reason you’re improving. Keep patients and their loved ones central to your efforts. They’re the reason your team members chose their professions and report for work each day. It’s easy to get caught up in eye-glazing quality measurement numbers, but they only tell part of the story. There’s another, human story behind each of those numbers. Try to include at least one patient story every time you report on progress.
  3. Renew efforts to engage your staff. They’re the ones who suffer the frustrations of inefficiency or puzzle at the illogic of processes that don’t work well. Look for ways to capture their observations and identify small changes that can have significant impact. Encourage them to be solution-oriented, to replace the question “Why do we always ____?” with “What if we could _____?”
  4. Triage your improvement efforts. Prioritize your resources toward those initiatives where the need is greatest, the timeline the most urgent, and the potential for a good outcome highest. Then make sure the team members you task with implementing those efforts understand what’s at stake. It’s easier for them to be motivated when they can clearly see the need for and potential impact of what they’re doing.
  5. Inject a little levity. The work of the emergency department is serious business. But there’s still room to take a lighter touch with quality improvement efforts. It may even increase your team’s engagement. Think of how many times you yawned through airplane safety demonstrations until the airlines started producing videos that use humor. If you’re planning a meeting or activity related to improvement efforts, consider finding ways to incorporate humor or even game-like elements to add some fun to the proceedings.

What are some ways you’ve found to prevent improvement burnout and keep your team engaged? Contact me to share your ideas or to get more information on leading successful quality improvement efforts in the emergency department.