It’s ironic that in a profession dedicated to taking care of patients, organizational support for healthcare providers too often falls by the wayside.
These days, you can’t flip through a business magazine without coming across a headline — or six — extolling the importance of organizational culture. Management experts spend countless hours debating leadership tactics; business heads trade tips on building team rapport and cultivating a supportive workplace environment.
The idea underlying this culture craze is simple: Workers are people first, and employees second. Without proper organizational support and encouragement, employees won’t have the means or motivation to push themselves towards higher productivity, much less help their businesses do the same. If organizations don’t take care of the people at the heart of their operations, they won’t thrive. It’s a simple conclusion.
The conversation around culture is a clamor in the corporate world — but in the healthcare sector, it’s little more than a whisper. Too often, organizations push health workers to perform without placing an equal priority on culture. Over time, this lack of organizational support can lead to resentment, frustration, exhaustion, and, at worst, a negative culture.
According to a 2018 study that explored how organizational culture influenced healthcare quality in NHS health centers, the consequences of a negative working environment can be both damaging and pervasive. Researchers reported that symptoms of negative workplace environment “emerged at all levels of the NHS system.” These included “a lack of consideration of risks to patients, defensiveness, looking inwards not outwards, secrecy, misplaced assumptions of trust, acceptance of poor standards, and, above all, a failure to put the patient first in everything done.”
These consequences undermine the primary directive of a healthcare center: to provide high-quality and timely care to patients. Leaders in the healthcare sector need to prioritize organizational culture, not only because doing so is a necessary part of upholding public health, but also because it is morally right. More than performance alone, we need to consider the impact that poor hospital culture can have on doctors’ physical and mental wellbeing.
As one writer for the ITA Group once explained, “From the first moment they’re in medical school, physicians are dealing with a daunting culture, where they’re expected to make countless consequential decisions throughout the day and deal with stacks of clerical rigmarole. Couple that with the ever-present tension of beeping and buzzing alarms and you’ve got a recipe for stress. And that stress [results] in poorer quality care and adverse effects on the personal lives of physicians.”
It is worth noting how widespread those adverse effects can be, too. Earlier this year, Medscape surveyed over 15,000 physicians across 29 specialties about their work experience and found that a whopping 42 percent of those polled felt burned out. Another report published by the New England Journal of Medicine further reported that nearly half of surveyed providers (46 percent) believed that their organizations were either “not at all effective” or “not very effective” at improving staff engagement and experience.
However, other research initiatives have found that when healthcare organizations promote activities that improve company culture, they also tend to report enhanced patient outcomes. This suggests that if we want to maximize efficacy in healthcare, we need to make sure that providers feel supported enough to pursue professional and organization-wide growth. But what does this mean in practice?
First and foremost, culture cannot be set on a back burner or outsourced to a single department.
“Unfortunately, in our experience it is far more common for leaders seeking to build high-performing organizations to be confounded by culture,” management researchers Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng explained in a 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “Indeed, many either let it go unmanaged or relegate it to the HR function, where it becomes a secondary concern for the business.”
Culture cannot be outsourced to HR. Healthcare leaders should strive to cultivate a positive corporate culture at every level of the organization by encouraging employees to share their ideas and concerns in daily huddles, taking measures to ensure that physicians have a work-life balance, and emphasizing the importance of patient-centered care.
The importance of maintaining these measures cannot be understated. While it is all well and good for leaders to conceptualize and implement culture-enhancing measures, those actions will have a minimal long-term effect if they are not continually reinforced by organization leadership.
Research has proven this point; in 2019, one study of 30 teams at the Mayo Clinic found that previously robust positive work cultures began to wane when team leaders were unable to participate in their group’s daily huddles. In several cases, staff members began to keep valuable insights and information to themselves because they did not feel comfortable putting themselves in the spotlight without a leader encouraging their participation. These huddles eventually stopped altogether — as did the positive culture that the teams once had.
Healthcare leaders make fostering a positive culture at every level of their organizations a priority and ensure that their providers are as well-taken-care-of as their patients. Only then will healthcare organizations be able to achieve their performance potential and establish an industry-wide norm of high-quality care.