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Lessons from “The Flu Game” On Healthcare Burnout & Performance

Jordan and Pippen

Recently, I re-watched The Last Dance on ESPN, and was reminded how incredible Michael Jordan's "flu game" performance was. In Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan battled through a serious case of the flu and/or food poisoning to lead the Chicago Bulls to a pivotal victory against the Utah Jazz. His incredible performance in the face of adversity has become the stuff of legend, and has been used as a metaphor for perseverance and determination in all areas of life.

The parallels between Jordan's "flu game" and the challenges faced by healthcare leaders trying to coax performance out of burnt out physicians and nurses are striking. In both cases, individuals are facing extraordinary physical and emotional challenges that threaten to derail their performance. In Jordan's case, it was a debilitating illness that would have sidelined most athletes. In the case of burnt out physicians and nurses, it is the accumulation of stress and fatigue that are leading to increasing feelings of hopelessness and despair.

The difference is that MJ summoned his greatness to overcome debilitating physical conditions for a single performance. Physicians and nurses are being asked to summon their greatness to overcome debilitating mental conditions each and every day.

It’s a stark comparison. Phil Jackson could rely on the ability of a once-in-a-generation talent to lead their team to victory.  MJ had that will and talent. But as healthcare leaders, we’re increasingly relying on our nurses and physicians to summon those same legendary moments—almost daily. No doubt, there are superstars on your team, but can you reliably count on them to deliver at that level day after day without increasing the support to ensure their well-being and the best possible patient outcomes?

The reality is that burnout in healthcare is not going away anytime soon. Physicians and nurses face high levels of stress and pressure every day, which is why it's so important for healthcare leaders to prioritize well-being and create a culture of wellness that supports them in their work. 

A strategy that relies on hero performances to deliver the positive momentum your health system needs this year isn’t really a strategy. On the contrary, one of the surest ways to boost productivity and profitability is by investing in creating strong teams that don’t rely on hero performances day in and day out. Your physicians and nurses need colleagues they can rely on for support and collaboration, as well as strong leadership that sets a positive example and provides the necessary resources and support for well-being. They need skill and training, not just apps and posters. Just as Jordan relied on his teammates to help him through his illness and lead the team to victory, nurses and physicians need strong teams all around them (and amongst each other) to help them through the challenges they face every day.

In both cases, the key to success lies in leadership. Just as Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen and the rest of MJ’s teammates rallied around him to provide support, you must do the same for your teams. This means creating a culture that not only prioritizes well-being, but also provides the necessary skills to support new capacities for growth and performance.  

While the comparison between Jordan's "flu game" and the challenges faced by burnt out physicians and nurses may not be perfect, it still serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of leadership, support, and teamwork. By prioritizing the well-being of your physicians and nurses and building strong teams, you can help your organizations achieve the best possible outcomes for patients and providers alike.

RELATIONS for Healthcare Transformation

Key Take-Aways

Emotional Intelligence: A Keystone for Addressing Today's Corporate Challenges

Focused Communication Skills Transformed Hospital Culture

Turning the Lever Down on Burnout and Turning Up Resilience, Well-Being and Joy (Part 3)

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