The Surprising Antidote to Burnout in Healthcare: Infusing Humanity into Your Work

As a care provider, caregiver, and executive coach in healthcare, I know firsthand the immense pressure and stress that comes with the job. It’s a profession that requires long hours, an unwavering dedication to our patients, and an ability to deal with high stakes situations on a daily basis. But as much as we focus on the technical aspects of medicine, we must also focus on something that often gets overlooked: humanity.

It’s no secret that the healthcare industry is riddled with issues, from medical errors to burnout to systemic inequalities. And while there are many solutions being proposed, one thing that can make a significant impact is injecting more humanity into our work.

What do I mean by that? Simply put, we need to focus on treating our patients as human beings first and foremost. This means taking the time to listen to them, to understand their concerns, and to empathize with their struggles. It means recognizing the inner states of others and feeling empathy for their suffering. And it means taking action to reduce their pain and provide them with the care they need.

But it’s not just about our patients. Injecting humanity into healthcare also means treating our colleagues and staff with the same level of respect and empathy. When we focus on how we treat our people, we create a powerful relationship. Our colleagues feel respected, heard, and are much more likely to engage. This attitude, this energy, positively affects the patients/families who report a happier experience.

It’s also important to recognize that the healthcare industry is evolving rapidly. The incorporation of digital technologies is transforming nursing practice, and the fact that many of the tasks could be performed by artificial intelligence (AI) systems challenges the traditional role of the nurse. Equity continues to be a challenge, particularly for the more vulnerable population. And person-centeredness is a critical aspect of caring. Understanding this point is essential to avoid seeing patients as “diseases” not as people.

So how do we inject more humanity into our work? It starts with each and every one of us. We need to actively listen to the other person and remain open-minded rather than assume that we are right. We need to stop, reflect, and then restate or paraphrase to our colleagues or patients what we heard to check if we heard correctly. We need to ask what they mean if we are unsure. And we need to approach every interaction with concerned curiosity and authenticity.

We also need to recognize the power of culture in healthcare. Culture can be accidental, when it just happens, when we are bounced around by life’s circumstances in a new environment. Culture can be intentional, when as individuals, teams, and leaders we agree to create systems and processes to make our organization inclusive and humane. When we consider the cultural space in our work as healthcare providers, we need to consciously decide which culture we want to create. It is the intentional culture that generates healthy cultures, greater engagement, and safer outcomes.

We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients to inject more humanity into our work. We need to cultivate compassion, listen actively, and approach every interaction with curiosity and authenticity. We need to recognize the power of culture and make a conscious effort to create a more inclusive and humane environment. And we need to remember that at the heart of it all, we are treating human beings, not just symptoms or diseases. By focusing on humanity, we can enhance the culture and quality of our organizations, and ultimately provide better care for our patients.

Take the Toxic Culture Quiz at DrKaren.org to find room for improvement or connect with Dr. Karen Rigamonti to learn more about injecting humanity into your organization.