Researchers reported at the American Conference on Physician Health that physicians and other healthcare workers who use a simple tool for 2 weeks show reduced burnout within a few days of starting the intervention and retain most of the benefit a year later. The intervention, called Three Good Things, revolves around strengthening a person's ability to perceive and savor positive emotions.

The standard measure of burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory, includes three pillars: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and the diminished sense of personal efficacy. Yet when researchers look at what interventions appear effective in reducing burnout, they all seem to have something in common; they all seem to improve a person's ability to perceive positive emotions.

The perceptions are influenced by how we feel. A lot of times when we are burned out, we forget that it changes what we notice and don't notice about the world around us. However, the gaze-tracking software shows that the volunteers looked at positive and negative images; they just did not take in the positive or neutral content. Burnout is the impaired ability to experience positive emotion.

The researchers have been testing a simple program called Three Good Things to reduce burnout. For the studies, researchers ask each volunteer to write down, just before going to bed, three good things that happened that day and label them with one of the 10 positive emotions that have been most closely tied to burnout: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.

In a trial with 148 internal medicine residents, researchers saw a 15% decrease in burnout in just 2 weeks, declining from 65% at baseline to 50% after the intervention. A year after the intervention ended, 48% remained resilient, suggesting the intervention has a lasting effect on risk for burnout, The residents also reported significantly less depression in the post-intervention measures, fewer delays, less conflict, and better work-life balance.

The team found similar results in other groups of healthcare workers. Among patient safety officers at Duke, the intervention was associated with a 19% reduction in burnout, dropping from 57% at baseline to 38% after the intervention. Similarly, burnout decreased from 64% to 53% among personnel in the neonatal intensive care unit at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto.

There are other ways to incorporate this kind of positive attention into the work schedule in healthcare. For example, in some settings, participants have been able to share their three good things with other team members, either online or by writing on a piece of butcher paper hung on the wall in a work area. The sharing appears to extend the positive benefits.

Building individual reliance is not the whole answer to burnout in healthcare, but it can be beneficial while institutions are attending to the structural issues that contribute to burnout. However, in the meantime, the team would work on the Three Good Things model and are currently enrolling healthcare workers, including physicians, nurses, and support staff, in a large study.