The Circle of Safety and Physician Burnout

In his book, Leaders Eat Last — Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek discusses the importance of a safe work environment for innovation, productivity and survival. He calls this leader-driven space the Circle of Safety.

It is easy to know when we are in the Circle of Safety because we can feel it. We feel valued by our colleagues and we feel care for by our superiors. We become absolutely confident that the leaders of the organization and all those with whom we work are there for us and will do what they can to help us succeed. We become members of the group. We feel like we belong. When we believe that those inside our group, those inside the Circle, will look out for us, it creates and environment for the free exchange of information and effective communication. This is fundamental to driving innovation, preventing problems from escalating and making organizations better equipped 

Absent a Circle of Safety, paranoia, cynicism and self-interest prevail.

Circle of Safety

Perhaps part of our burnout crisis in medicine stems from a lack of safety for doctors.

The healthcare world is filled with danger. At any given point there are forces working to corrupt our ability to do our job. Without the Circle of Safety clinicians burn their emotional energy protecting themselves from an assault of administrative tasks and mushrooming clinical demands.

For some physicians there is:

  • No sense of belonging.
  • Absence of a medical culture based on a clear set of values and beliefs.
  • No trust or real power to make decisions.

While there’s a tendency to blame the victim, these three elements are not in the control of any individual physician. In other words, practicing docs can’t will their way into a safe space no matter how hard they try. It’s cultivated within organizations — it’s part of an organization’s culture. And it calls for strong physician leadership. Someone to look after those under their charge and shape the Circle of Safety as Sinek describes.

When the Circle is strong and that feeling of belonging is ubiquitous, collaboration, trust and innovation result.’ Find strong physician leaders to create a Circle of Safety and you’ll be on your way to conquering physician burnout. 

Easier said than done, for sure. But it’s a start. 

If you like this post you may like the 33 charts Burnout Archive. It captures everything written here on burnout. In fact, every post has itty bitty tags at the very bottom that will help you find related material. Happy reading!

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