By Gary Evans, Medical Writer
Spiritual values common to many major religions can provide a powerful tonic against burnout in healthcare workers, giving them a sense of purpose and community if incorporated into leadership and work culture, an advocate of such programs emphasizes.
“The theory underlying spiritual leadership, as well as the model we use, is universal,” says Jody Fry, PhD, a professor at Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen. “You can reduce burnout in any organization, and hospital employees all face burnout just because of the nature of the work.”
A recent paper by Fry and colleagues reports that incorporating spiritual values in a group of clinical lab workers showed effectiveness in adding meaning to their work and reducing burnout.1
“This is from a management leadership perspective in terms of how can we bring a greater sense of purpose and community into the work?” says Fry, the coordinator of the One Planet Leadership Program at the university. “The world’s spiritual religious traditions are primarily about how to go inward to find a source of strength beyond ourselves so we can go forward and love and serve others.”
‘Spirituality’ Not Necessarily Religious
Although pastoral and chaplain programs are a mainstay of healthcare counseling, some facilities balk at the notion of introducing “spirituality.” This may be from wanting to avoid advocating a specific faith or, on the contrary, some concern about the nebulous nature of the word.
“The spiritual aspect of it is really not religious-based at all,” says Fry, who has been researching and teaching about this subject for almost two decades. “It is fundamentally about focusing on the spiritual needs that we all have, including a sense of calling and purpose.”
A search for meaning is fundamental to the human condition, and this often is manifested in a sense of belonging to a community, he says.
“We want to have a sense of integrity and be understood and appreciated for who we are, just as we are,” Fry says. “Our research has shown that if you can satisfy these needs in an organization, some pretty magical things can happen.”
Components of spiritual leadership resonated with medical lab workers, who responded positively to a series of value statements.
“This research shows it can have a significant impact on reducing burnout in at least one area of healthcare,” he says. “There are a lot of pressures, and the lab workers are removed from patients or clients. They don’t have direct contact, but can kill people by making mistakes — that is pretty heavy pressure.”
Walk the Walk
The lab workers assessed value statements like, “The leaders of my organization walk the walk as well as talk the talk.” Another example is, “The work I do makes a difference in people’s lives.” To the extent healthcare workers can be empowered to feel these core beliefs, the less likely they are to succumb to burnout and other manifestations of occupational angst.
“Ultimately, what is required is some higher power. It can be an organization, especially if it is truly loving and serving its stakeholders — its people,” he says. “If the organization can give people a sense of purpose grounded in what we call values of ‘altruistic love,’ that’s the higher power. It doesn’t have to be a divine entity.”
Another value statement assessed in the study is, “I feel my organization appreciates me in my work. I feel highly regarded by my leaders.”
One way to introduce a spiritual aspect to leadership is supporting mindfulness training, a meditation approach that is becoming increasingly popular in wellness programs of all stripes.
Spiritual values like compassion and empathy resonate with workers, and they will respond if these traits are part of the work culture, Fry says.
“This is based in loving values such as kindness, forgiveness, acceptance,” he says. “The hypothesis of the whole study is that spiritual leadership would work through community membership to reduce burnout, and we have found that. Spiritual leadership creates a sense of a loving community, and we come together to support each other.”
1. Yang M, Fry LW. The role of spiritual leadership in reducing healthcare worker burnout. Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion June 14, 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2KdGEmc.