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Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation

Kindness Cures: An innovative approach to reducing burnout in healthcare settings

  • Katie Shillington
  • |
  • Dec 11, 2018
Kindness Cures: An innovative approach to reducing burnout in healthcare settings

It is assumed that physicians’ thoughts surround diagnoses, referrals and prescription dosages; however, for many healthcare professionals, their mind can be an extremely dark place – one where suicide appears to be the only escape from their occupational stress. Namely, the United States loses up to 400 physicians per year to suicide-related deaths. Often neglected in terms of mental health, healthcare professionals experience significant burnout, affecting more than half of practicing physicians and this is continuing to rise. The burnout of healthcare professionals is a topic of concern, as it not only affects their mental health, but also takes a toll on the relationships they have with their patients.

Occupational stress is common among various fields of work; however, it is imperative that it be considered in the healthcare sector, especially among physicians as previous studies show that the mortality of physicians is lower than that of the general population. Healthcare professionals experience a unique set of stressors that can result in burnout, which can be characterised as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and low-personal accomplishment. It’s important to note that burnout is not the same as depression; however, it can evolve to become depression. Healthcare professional burnout is caused by excessive workload, imbalance between job demand and skills, a lack of job control, prolonged work stress, work conflicts and sleep deprivation. Though Canadian research in this area is limited, the burnout of healthcare professionals is often thought of from an organizational standpoint, resulting in reduced productivity, leading to early retirement and high job turn over, which in turn costs approximately $250,000 USD per physician.

In addition to the system costs of healthcare professional burnout, it is imperative that we consider the effect that healthcare professional burnout has on patients. As the healthcare system shifts away from a reactive approach to care and towards a proactive approach, there is an increased emphasis on patient-centeredness. Despite this shift, healthcare professional burnout may diminish this evolving concept as burnout can result in an increase of medical errors, reduced quality of patient care and lower patient satisfaction. An innovative approach to promoting positive mental health in healthcare professionals and in turn improving patient-provider relationships, might centre around performing acts of kindness. Acts of kindness are defined as acts that improve the wellbeing of others and that are selfless in nature. Research on acts of kindness to reduce burnout in healthcare professionals is limited; however, success has been demonstrated utilizing acts of kindness as an intervention for the mental health of university students. A related study by Lyubomsky et al. (2005) found that engaging in acts of kindness demonstrated a significant increase in students’ wellbeing and happiness. In this study students in the intervention group were asked to perform five acts of kindness per week over the duration of six weeks. Students in the no-treatment control group completed measures of wellbeing both pre- and post-intervention. The study concluded a strong correlation between performing acts of kindness and experiencing feelings of happiness, which resulted in enhancements to the participants’ overall mental wellness.

Additionally, a study done by Paviglianiti and Irwin (2017) examined students’ experiences in a voluntary random acts of kindness (RAKs) health promotion project. The Butterfly Effect: A Legacy Through Kindness, was a voluntary health promotion class project at Western University, which aimed to give students an experiential learning opportunity by creating a kindness movement. The goal was to promote kindness being the norm, rather than the exception and in turn facilitate wellness and positive mental health. What participants reflected upon afterwards was an increase in their wellbeing, happiness and confidence, as well as a reduction in negative stress.

Based on the research presented, it is evident that the engagement of acts of kindness has been used as a mental health promotion approach among university students. Based on its success in this field, it is suggested that acts of kindness be used as an intervention for the burnout of healthcare professionals. Though minimal, there has been notable success in San Diego and Ireland. Researchers Davidson et al. (2017) conducted a project called Code Lavender, at the university training hospital in San Diego. Code Lavender was developed to combat the stress and burnout experienced by hospital staff as a result of working in such a high-intensity and fast-paced setting. This intervention included a care package enclosed in a lavender-coloured bag, containing lavender essential oil, a piece of chocolate, a card with an encouraging message on it and a lavender-coloured sticker. These Code Lavender care packages were placed within hospital care units for staff to voluntarily offer colleagues at times of stress. Findings concluded that of those who received the Code Lavender intervention, 100% found it helpful and 84% would recommend it to others. In addition, there was an improvement in participants feeling cared-for, emphasizing the role that social support played in stress reduction.

The utilization of kindness as an intervention for the burnout of healthcare professionals has proven to be successful yet is far from the norm in Canada. Application of a program such as Code Lavender in Canadian healthcare settings could reduce physician and care team burnout, which in turn would promote quality care for patients and lower the costs associated with physician turnover. It’s time that we shift our focus to care for a population that routinely cares for us and cultivate a culture of kindness, in what can be an otherwise dim world.

Katie Shillington is practicum student working as a Student Research Analyst at the Ivey Centre for Health Innovation. She is in her fourth year pursuing a Bachelor of Health Sciences with an Honours Specialization in Health Promotion.