Studies have shown that more than 60% of practitioners exhibit symptoms of burnout.
The desire to tackle this issue is something that Penn Neurology Chair Frances E. Jensen, MD, FACP, had shared on several occasions with her faculty members. But as is often the case in a busy academic practice, it was hard to find the time to get a committee off the ground.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed that.
“Things became stressful and overwhelming and there were so many unknowns,” explains Dr. Orthmann-Murphy. “I reached out to Dr. Jensen and the new committee members to get things started.”
Despite being the de facto Chair of the committee, Dr. Orthmann-Murphy was the first to admit that she was not a scholar of wellness. But like any good leader, she surrounded herself with several colleagues who were.
“Through those first few weekly meetings we came to a better understanding of what burnout meant and how COVID amplified the situation,” she shares. “Even just talking about it was comforting.”
A simple, weekly email called “COVID Claps” was the committee’s first step. “Initially, we wanted a way to recognize and thank colleagues working on the front line,” Dr. Orthmann-Murphy says. “Then we realized that there were other members of our department—not just clinicians—who were doing important things and who needed recognition.”
So the committee expanded its scope and membership so that it could also address issues affecting the department’s support staff within the department. Among those invited to participate was Mike Kalfin, Interim Chief Operating Officer for the department.
“Wellness is usually a topic you hear in the context of doctors and nurses, but we were expanding it to help the entire department,” he says. “Working on the operations side, I interact regularly with our department’s support staff—administrative assistants, practice managers, patient service representatives. COVID turned their world upside down. In addition to working remotely—something most had never done before—they were now juggling new technology and processes, on top of the responsibilities of home school and family, and many of them didn’t have the resources to handle this. It was a tremendous stress for them.”
To better understand what people were struggling with, the committee conducted a series of surveys on a range of topics including the uncertainties of working virtually, return to clinic, and the return to school for children. The data gathered through these queries enabled the committee to begin identifying and tackling concerns.
“Wellness can be so many things,” says Kalfin. “We couldn’t have our department work less because we have deliverables to meet. So we had to ask, ‘what other ways can we affect change, what are our limitations as a committee?’”
One committee member began hosting virtual happy hours. Others worked to provide more flexibility for telemedicine clinics so that staff could better balance demands at home and work.
A more recent need was a clear protocol for how to manage work responsibilities when a child is sick. So the committee worked with department leadership to develop a process to alleviate a lot of stress and uncertainty.
Another concern was the amount of time being spent in meetings during the work week and answering emails over the weekends—particularly when obligations at home were increased. The department is now making an effort to cut down on both.
The committee also began collecting and cataloging reference information and sending it out to the department. Much of this came through the Penn Medicine Work/Life Committee and Penn Cobalt, and included resources for childcare and teaching pods.
“One of the biggest successes of this committee is that it has allowed us to reframe the conversation so that it’s everyone’s burnout and everyone’s wellness,” says Kalfin. “Taking this step has meant a lot to our staff and puts our department and administration well ahead of the curve.”
With the next wave of COVID-19 now hitting the region, the committee plans to keep doing what it has done for the past nine months, listening, learning, and doing what it can to support one another.