Culture, Burnout, and Employee Engagement - 5 Questions With Mitch Wasden


How have you addressed culture and burnout?

In discussion with Fortune 500 companies, the most common things CEOs are talking about isn’t strategy or capital, it is employees: employee burnout, engaging employees, and culture. We’re seeing an increase in burnout due to healthcare’s changing regulations and cost competition. It’s not just happening with doctors and nurses, but everybody can be affected. One of the reasons we’ve made big investments in culture is that we see employee engagement like an inoculation against burnout. Anytime employees are engaged in meaningful work their ability to withstand the challenges greatly increases.

Over the past five years we have seen a rise in employee engagement. Quality is improving, we show an increase in market share, and there is a cascading effect showing improvements in our financial bottom line.    It’s been a critical component to managing a large, complex organization.

Healthcare is in constant change.  How are you helping employees stay engaged?

You find anytime you work with employee development, or culture improvements, you get an increased amount of bandwidth from the same employees. You don’t need to bring in new employees to get improved results – most employees have more bandwidth in them if you know how to get it out. We’re doing work in the Neuro Leadership Institute based on a meta study where we saw 70% of performance evalutations make performance worse or don’t improve it at all. It makes you question how we do performance reviews and developing people. We’ve moved to quarterly conversations around the employees five strengths and have a “grow” conversation. In these conversations the leaders cover goals, results, whether they’re on track, and what the way forward is.  The potential to grow is five or six times greater when you focus on strengths and not weaknesses. Weaknesses can improve over time, but focusing on strengths allows the scale of improvement to dwarf weaknesses. This helps us get better engagement and lower turnover.

How can leaders use the tension in healthcare to be successful?

Tension can be best friends with innovation. Good leaders can transform tensions and make them adaptive. The most common places we see tensions are in regulatory, burnout, or healthcare costs. Good leaders are able to manage those day-to-day tensions, but great leaders foresee them and figure out how to transform for the future.  

What models can leaders use to manage the complexities of healthcare?

Healthcare is in a complex time. Paraphrasing Peter Drucker, “healthcare is the most complex form of organization” and that was before Obamacare. Leaders need to look at their business in a more human way. When you do any action in life it is done because of the mental map for each situation while constantly bouncing between identities. Organizations with a weak culture often have employees who have a limited scope in job identification.  They often are focused on new job opportunities and wages– usually focusing on doing just enough to get by. When we focus on culture, we look at values and cultivate beliefs – ours is being innovators or serving employees. Creating attention density around these principles allows employees to focus on new identities therefore improving the broad collective behaviors by creating order out of chaos.   

We’ve seen you quoted as saying “a leader’s job is to light a fire.” How can leaders inspire employees?

You light a fire when you show people meaning in their own work. We each possess knowledge and the ability to “do” – and when they overlap we have skills to contribute. The more they overlap, the more skills one possesses. However, those two things are not enough to light the fire. Employees may have knowledge and skill, but if they don’t identify with the job, they’re not going to reach their full potential. So, the third component to lighting a fire is the employee’s “being” - their identity. As they merge knowing, doing, and being, they find meaning in their work and it becomes personal. We want employees to bring their identity into their work so they don’t become transactional in their efforts.