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October 22, 2019

Fighting Burnout

As a newly graduated nurse, Dr. Teresa Stephens learned lessons familiar to many of her colleagues: The combination of high stress, long hours and harshly critical co-workers caused her to leave after one year. Unfortunately, her second job wasn’t much different, but that time Stephens made a life-changing decision.

“I made myself a promise that if I ever had a chance to make a difference and make it better for other nurses, that’s what I would do,” she said. That was almost 33 years ago. After many years in practice, she recognized the need for research on this topic, leading her to pursue a PhD and the development of a conceptual model of resilience. The result has been more than a decade of research and education focused on “resilience.” That’s why SCHA’s Working Well team recruited her for a new program called Thriving Workforce.

Stephens, who is an associate professor of nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina, is the program’s resident expert in resilience, one of three factors at the center of the statewide, comprehensive effort to reduce burnout and improve well-being among healthcare employees.

More than half of the current healthcare workforce reports high burnout rates and low job satisfaction, according to Jen Wright, the Working Well program director who is spearheading the new initiative.  Working Well’s annual meeting, set for Nov. 14 at SCHA’s conference center, will focus on how to increase personal resilience, workflow efficiency and a culture of wellbeing to build a thriving workforce, with Stephens as featured speaker.

“When I went back to school to work on a Master’s and then a doctorate, I started looking at nurse attrition rates from an administrative perspective,” she said. “About 60 percent of newly graduated nurses were leaving their first job within two years. I decided to focus on the 40 percent who stayed. Why were they different? They were repeatedly described as ‘resilient.’ I wanted to know what that meant and, more importantly, if it could be taught and learned.”

By working with Holocaust survivors, Stephens began to understand and document how resilient people think, process stress and grow from adversity. At the upcoming Working Well conference, Stephens will share her findings and processes for developing personal resilience and resilient work teams.

“We can’t put it all on the shoulders of the individual and tell them to toughen up. We need to build teams that work collectively to manage stress,” she said. “We also have to look at organizational issues such as 12-hour shifts, inflexible work schedules and rigid bureaucratic policies.” Changing those burnout drivers is in the organization’s best interests, she said, since replacing a nurse costs upwards of $80,000 a year, and possibly more than $1 million to replace a physician.

The conference on resiliency is free for Working Well members, $25 for non-members. Registration is now open. The Thriving Workforce program is funded by a grant from The Duke Endowment.