Why It Matters
With so many people working in health and health care feeling stressed, tired, and overwhelmed, it's never been more important to promote joy in work.
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Joy to the Workforce

By Derek Feeley | Friday, March 4, 2016
Restoring Joy in the Workforce_Derek Feeley

These days, both the news and the medical literature are full of stories and reports about burnout. The whole of the clinical work force is under tremendous pressure. Physicians, nurses, everyone working in health and health care are feeling stressed, tired, and overwhelmed.

Responding to what many are calling a crisis isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. How we respond to what clinicians and others are feeling and experiencing in their daily work is crucial.

One way is to focus on the deficits. But another way – the way IHI has chosen to respond – is to look at all the assets we have in health care and think about how we can leverage these strengths to restore and actively promote joy in work. It was W. Edwards Deming – one of the fathers of improvement science – who said that a manager’s principal job is to promote joy in the workforce, and this has long been a priority for IHI. The first words any visitor to our office sees as they step off the elevator make that clear: “We will improve the lives of patients, the health of communities, and the joy of the health care workforce.” It makes me smile every time I see it. We are confident we can do this. We are confident because of the assets we see throughout health care.

Health Care's Most Powerful Assets

The most valuable and powerful asset we have in health care is the people drawn to the field out of a desire to help others. This is the meaning and purpose of working in health – a passion for caring. The problem is that the demands of working in health have gotten in the way of why so many of us decided to enter the profession. Pressures, requirements, and bureaucracy have frayed and sometimes broken the tie between the workforce and its passion. This can lead to disengagement.

We know that restoring this connection to a sense of meaning and purpose is how to re-engage. We also know that an engaged workforce delivers better outcomes for patients and families. Restoring joy in work isn’t merely an employee satisfaction initiative; it’s about quality of care, effective care, and patient safety.

Other key assets in the workforce come from working to help and care for people. Working in health care should foster empathy and cultivate curiosity. Empathy and curiosity are essential to fostering engagement. We need to take advantage of this moment of significant transition in health care to create the right environments and the right circumstances, so that the empathy and curiosity that drew people to the profession in the first place can flourish.

LEARN MORE: Finding and Creating Joy in Work, IHI's online course with coaching

Who is Responsible for Joy in Work?

Just as the quality and safety of care is an organization-wide responsibility, so, too, is joy in work. And as with any organization-wide responsibility, the ultimate accountability for promoting joy in work lies with leaders. Dedicated health care human resource professionals, of course, also have important roles to play in helping us find the right people and form the right teams. But in the end, leaders are responsible for creating the environment in which workers can find joy.

I know that not all leaders themselves feel joy in work. They are not immune to the pressures and impediments to joy that are afflicting the overall workforce. Everyone, regardless of position or role, feels burned out from time to time. One thing leaders can do is show some vulnerability and admit to their staffs that they, too, feel the pressures they are feeling, and demonstrate their commitment to doing something about it.

Accepting our duty as IHI, and my duty as IHI’s leader, to restore joy in work is also personally important to me. It’s one of the reasons I joined IHI. I know that joy is central to improving health and care, and I am eager to play my part.

I count myself very lucky. I don’t have to look hard to find joy in my work. Part of that is because of the inspiring passion, talent, and generosity of spirit of the IHI workforce. But I also find so much joy in connecting with you – the health care leaders and professionals who have devoted their lives to helping and healing. I look forward to learning from all of you about your efforts to promote joy in work.

Derek Feeley is IHI President and CEO. He is faculty for the Finding and Creating Joy in Work online course with coaching.

Editor’s note: Look for more from Derek Feeley (@DerekFeeleyIHI) on leadership, innovation, and improvement in health care in the “Line of Sight” series on the IHI blog.

You may also be interested in:

Joy in Work resources page

How Iris Found Joy at Work

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