Stop Physician Burnout the Limits of Positive Psychology

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

physician-burnout-positive-psychology-lipstick-on-a-pig-dike-drummondPositive Psychology is not a Physician Wellness Strategy - it is a single useful tool, just like Lipstick on a Pig

Even if you put the most expensive lipstick on a cute little Hampshire pig, it is still a pig.
There are times when positive psychology is an extremely useful, powerful and effective body of knowledge, yet focusing only on the nature of my inner dialog won't fix a system where patient and information flow are fundamentally inefficient - or perhaps even FUBAR.
Telling your people Positive Psychology is all you need to turn this around - is wrong, cruel and can only make things worse for everyone - leaders, clinicians, staff and patients.  
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Leaders ... head's up here.  

Do not confuse Positive Psychology with a Burnout Prevention Strategy.

  • Do not impose a positive psychology intervention as a solution to burnout or you will only make things worse. (there is no solution to burnout by the way)
  • The complex issues that lead to physician burnout cannot be adequately addressed by a "turn your frown upside down" intervention.
  • Your people deserve better.
  • Your leadership role demands you care more, do more, lead more than that.  

This is Blog Post #340
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positive-psychology-limits-in-prevention-of-physician-burnout-OPT200WI was talking to a senior leadership team last month about how they believe optimizing the work environment for their people is their core leadership principle.
(NOTE: this is what the leadership team is saying. I have no way to know if their people feel this stated intention from their positions in the front line.)
They do not have a corporate physician wellness strategy at this time and were looking at options for a "template" they could follow. 

They had chosen to consult an organization whose sole intervention was Positive Psychology training for the physicians. They were wondering if had anything more compelling to offer.
I pointed out that their chosen consultants are a one trick pony in a situation where dual strategies are required. We already know, the only way to create meaningful traction with a group of employed physicians is with a pair of strategies, executed in tandem.
I advised them that this decision could only make things worse - that it is almost impossible to announce a top down initiative like this without sounding like you believe physician burnout is just "in your head". 
Positive psychology is incredibly important, extremely valuable as a coping mechanism for the individual physician. And it is not a physician wellness program for an organization.
  • It is a component of mindfulness that allows you to tolerate difficult circumstances
  • But it does not give the leadership team a pass on actually creating a better workplace and more supportive culture.

I asked them to consider one of our programs designed to:

1) Change the culture - Build a Culture of Support ("We've got your back"

2) Build functioning systems - Patient and Information flow that works and the staffing to get the job don

3) Complete their medical education and teach them how to recognize and prevent burnout

Give them some practical Positive Psychology tools.


Here is my email to that CMO after our conversation:
Hey Dr. X,
Thanks for getting back to me and I have to let you know this decision is a clear strategic error - based on my ten years of experience with 175 organizations and training over 40,000 doctors to recognize and prevent physician burnout.  
What is the body of experience that the Positive Medicine crew bases their recommendations on - not the research papers, their direct experience with groups of employed physicians?   
If you take this action, here is the most likely impression your people will take away: "Corporate has hired a bunch of shrinks to tell me I am not positive enough"  
I don't know these people, don't have a beef with them. What I do know is throwing positive psychology through non-physician consultants at a group of doctors is not a solution to the burnout issue by any means. They will talk ABOUT stress and teach people to look at the bright side - full stop.
Just look at their blog posts on this page of their website and imagine your front line providers' response to this pablum.
Then look here:
That's enough for now and this is wrong on a number of levels.  If you feel like this is the way you want to check this box, we are clearly not on the same page. And if you would like to talk about this further, I am open to that conversation for sure. 
My goal is to help your providers in the trenches, every day, make real changes to lower stress, build more life balance and a more Ideal Practice. THAT is how you get happy. It is not a "turn your frown upside down" re-framing exercise. Lives are at stake here. 
You know where to find me when you want traction and impact.
Have a mellow week, 


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  • What is your organization's Burnout Prevention Strategy as best you can tell?
  • Does your organization provide training in Positive Psychology?
  • What positive psychology tools do you use in your daily life/practice?

Tags: stop physician burnout