It’s a VUCA Time in Healthcare

by | Sep 20, 2022 | Physician Mindfulness

I don’t have to tell you that these are complicated times in the world. The pandemic. Global warming. The war in Ukraine, and violence in many other parts of the globe. Inflation. Growing levels of inequity. The Great Resignation.

In healthcare, in particular, these are very complicated times. The pandemic has brought to light many of the problems that were already brewing below the surface. Under resourcing. Shortages in staff. Negativity and discord. Burnout.

 It’s no surprise that the term VUCA is being used more and more to describe what’s occurring in healthcare. It’s a term that first arose in the military following the 9/11 attacks, and the same term is all too applicable to healthcare, everywhere on the globe.

What Is VUCA

We can think of VUCA as a big, tangled mess. A mess that is occurring in healthcare and elsewhere.

V is for Volatility

Upon an already stressed healthcare system, the pandemic brought with it many rapid and challenging changes in healthcare. Volatility is at bay in many ways but is most evident in the high levels of attrition and turnover we’re seeing — in physicians, nurses, technicians, therapists, and even in those who clean patient rooms.

Indeed, a recent article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings shed light on this issue. Looking at more than 20,000 respondents at 124 institutions, the study revealed that one in five physicians are planning on leaving their position in the next twelve months. For nurses, intent to leave was present in 40%. For advanced practice providers, 33%. This means a great deal of turmoil in hospitals and outpatient medical settings. It also raises questions about the sustainability of the entire enterprise.

This “Great Resignation” in healthcare is something I was quoted in earlier this year in over half a dozen major news venues. While I was happy to be involved as an expert on the topic, I, like others in the field did not have a lot of tangible solutions to stem this tide.

U is for Uncertainty

With all this change, there is a massive sense of unpredictability and uncertainty about what will happen next.

When will the pandemic end?

What difficulty will come next?

How will we do our jobs without adequate staff to support our efforts?

What will the new normal be?

C is for Complexity and Chaos

The level of complexity in healthcare these days is almost inconceivable. So many moving parts. So much dissatisfaction and burnout. So much chaos. And the complexity and chaos have contributed to what can only be thought of as a giant vortex of negativity pulling all of healthcare into its hold.

Additionally, there is so much change occurring that it has the makings of a dark joke:

You work in a major urban area where you are in competition with the other major medical practice across town. You leave for a well-needed vacation on a Friday and return a week from Monday only to find that your health system has been acquired by your that practice. Guess what? Now you have to work side-by-side with the clinicians who were just 2 weeks ago, your biggest adversary.

I hate to say it but, it can seem that, with all this VUCA, the joke may be on all of us in healthcare…

A is for Ambiguity

At the end of the day, we don’t know what all the changes in healthcare mean.

What does all of this mean for my current situation?

What does it mean for my future?

If this continues, who will be left to take care of me and my loved ones?

It is truly an ambiguous situation.

Since many of us are experiencing a VUCA reality, it’s important to understand the impact it has.

Certainly, a VUCA environment is both a disrupted and a disruptive one. It impacts all of us, doctors, nurses, technicians, therapists alike. Patients are certainly not spared. It can leave us:

  • Feeling unstable and ungrounded
  • Unsure of how to react to all the changes that are occurring
  • With lack of clarity on what our role is in a rapidly changing system
  • With reduced motivation to take actions that contribute to the greater good

Most importantly, living and working in a VUCA environment can leave us fearful, reactive, and feeling out of control. This means that our limbic system is frequently activated, taking us into a fight/flight/freeze state. Unfortunately, in this state, we’re trapped in survival mode. And survival mode means that our world narrows, and that we are reduced to looking out for #1, ourselves. When we’re looking out for #1, we invariably have less left over to give to others. And yet, perhaps VUCA times require a greater degree of leaning into connection and shared community than ever.

So, what can you do? 

Let’s Look At 4 Ways To Overcome Uncertainty

While the challenges of a VUCA world can seem inescapable and insurmountable, there are a number of steps you can take to manage yourself so you still show up in ways that you feel good about. So you can look back and feel proud about yourself and your actions.

A mindful approach can help you hold steady amidst these challenging times. Here are 4 mindfulness strategies you can employ.

  1. Embrace uncertainty

When you stop and think about it, uncertainty and change are the only things that are certain. Impermanence is one of the basic laws of our world.

After all, everything changes. Our relationships change. Our kids grow up and change. Our bodies age and change. Our environments change. Our planet changes.

All too often, however, we forget this basic truth. We somehow expect things to be predictable and stable.

The problem is that this expectation sets us up for difficulty. It leaves us struggling unnecessarily when something shifts. It adds a layer of suffering above and beyond that caused by all the VUCA around us.

What I’m getting at is that we have a choice. We can meet uncertainty with reactivity or we can meet it with mindful understanding.

More than meditating on a remote mountainside, mindfulness helps us have the calm, steadiness, and clarity we need to work constructively with all the change and uncertainty.

At the same time, while we can find ourselves resisting change, we can remind ourselves that it does not have to mean something bad! Just take a moment right now to think of all the difficulties you have faced in your life and work that are now resolved and far behind you. This can help you see how change has actually been quite the positive.

  1. Respond to complexity with compassion

Even knowing that change is the only thing that is certain, it can still be difficult to weather. Living in such a VUCA time is difficult. You deserve compassion for managing all the challenges.

With mindful awareness, we can bring ourselves compassion for what we’re going through. There is increasing evidence that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to stress and even burnout. From where I sit, I think that it is actually one of the most powerful medicinals available to us.

  1. Take purposeful pauses

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on within and around us. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We learn to utilize our breath to take us out of the fears, worries, stories, and preoccupations our minds are so good at generating about what might come next, and bring us back to the present moment. Here in the present, we leave that overly activated limbic state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. It creates a critically important space between our emotional response and conscious, intentional action.

Once we have paused, we can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

With a pause, we become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

  1. View VUCA as opportunity

I don’t know about you, but I can find myself reacting to the VUCA environment with something of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, I am telling myself things like ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ and ‘why is this happening?’

When I can utilize mindful awareness, I can see that I’ve boxed myself in with a fixed mindset. I can challenge myself to grow. By grow, I mean challenging myself to see whatever difficulty I’m experiencing as an opportunity to learn.

Here again, mindfulness again throws us a lifeline. Mindful awareness involves leaning into curiosity.

I can flip the script and ask myself:

What can I learn from this experience?

How can I use this to be a better version of myself?

How can I help others cope in this VUCA environment?

What do I want to look back and see about how I acted?

In summary, while VUCA is definitely the order of the day in healthcare and beyond, you don’t have to succumb. You don’t have to live in fear. There are constructive actions you can take to help you cope with uncertainty, build calm in chaos, and even thrive in chaos and VUCA. While we can’t control much that is contributing to the VUCA time, with mindfulness we can control how we respond to it.

I hope you’ll try out these 4 mindfulness strategies as I have seen them help countless people. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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To learn more about how mindfulness coaching can help you cope with this VUCA time, please reach out for a complimentary consult.

6 Free Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

  1. 14-day meditation series 
  2. Imposter No More PDF
  3. Resilience Book Chapter
  4. Leading In Crisis PDF
  5. Balance To Burnout PDF
  6. 30-minute consult

Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.