Surf's Up:  Ways to Make Sure CEOs and Other Employees Have A Healthy Work-Life Balance
by Chuck Lauer, Healthcare Policy Expert
 
What can be done about CEO burnout in healthcare?
 
Last year’s American College of Healthcare Executives survey found that hospital CEO turnover held steady at 18%, which while less than the record high of 20% in 2013, remains among the highest rates reported in the past two decades. 
The demands placed on CEOs of major healthcare systems have increased tenfold since the 1940s. Health reform, the squeezing of reimbursement from all payers, new entities emerging from health reform, mergers and acquisitions and a whole new relationship with physicians are combining in some cases to produce burnout.
Even the high pay for many executives isn’t enough to keep them from leaving.
 
Release valves can be found in exercise, travel and other aspects of private life. For some this works, but others succumb to less healthful means of taking the edge off. Excessive drinking and illicit drug use are not uncommon among healthcare leaders.
 
I was contacted recently by a hospital board member who asked me for my opinion in a situation that had surfaced at the hospital. Staffers had come to the executive vice president of the hospital and told him of the bizarre behavior of the CEO, who was often late for important meetings, appeared disinterested when asked for his opinion and slurred his words with some frequency. The EVP contacted the board member, who came to me for advice. He had not spoken to others in or out of the hospital about the problem with the CEO.
 
My first question was, “What are you waiting for?” This was a situation that had to be addressed immediately.  The board member said he didn’t want to embarrass the CEO and do something that was “destructive.” I said the destruction was coming from the CEO, and that a group of board members needed to meet with him and find out what was happening.  Alcoholism is a very complicated disease and if the CEO was drinking too much on the job his personal life had to be a mess as well.
 
The board member took my advice, and a committee confronted the CEO. He denied everything, saying that he had a few drinks occasionally, but didn’t have any drinking problem. He demanded to know the names of those who had complained. The board members refused, but suggested to the CEO that if there was anything that they could do to be helpful they stood ready to help.
 
A month went by without any complaints from the executive team about the CEO’s drinking, but soon there were more reports of erratic behavior. The board again went to the CEO, this time saying if he didn’t get help from a staff psychologist, he would be relieved of his duties. Eventually the exec agreed, and for more than a year has been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He is sober for now.
 
That kind of happy ending is not always so common. Alcohol and drug abuse are often the cause of those press releases stating a CEO is either “pursuing other interests” or “looking to spend more time with family.”
 
Unfortunately, the healthcare industry isn’t as enlightened as many other industries, where companies ensure their teams have outlets and time to take advantage of them. They offer not only their executives but all their employees extended time off to recharge their batteries. One is the Patagonia Company, the Ventura, Calif.-based maker of camping, skiing, surfing and hiking gear. It is highly financially successful, but it goes beyond the call of duty by offering all sorts of beneficial activities to employees so they can unwind and spend more time with their families. True to founder Yvon Chouinard’s memoir title, “Let My People Go Surfing,” many staff members spend lunchtime in wetsuits trying to catch the perfect wave. Or they might be on the weekly 30-mile lunchtime bike ride or a “field trip” to Idaho or Wyoming to learn fly-fishing or to Yosemite National Park for rock climbing. Despite some criticism from other organizations the company has stuck to its values of treating its people as human beings. At 8 p.m. each night, the CEO and everyone else is told to go home and the headquarters is locked.  
 
It is a subject very seldom spoken about in executive forums but is something that needs to be addressed with more clarity. Stress and pressure on the job can be destructive and lead to behaviors like drug addiction, alcoholism and other problems.
 
It is up to the boards of healthcare organizations to act to ensure that everyone has a healthy work-life balance and that the pressure of running a 21st century health system isn’t shouldered by one person alone.
 
Chuck Lauer
 

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