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Natalie Schwatka

Shared Leadership for Workforce Health: Bridging healthcare and space exploration

Dr. Natalie Schwatka reflects on the impact of leadership across various disciplines

minute read

Written by Natalie Schwatka on April 29, 2024

What do space exploration, healthcare, construction, and public school workers have in common? They all form teams to carry out their missions! Teamwork requires working together to achieve common goals, solve problems, and innovate. Emerging evidence suggests that multiple people can lead teams at one time. Interest in shared leadership research led me to study why and how this phenomenon might happen in the Total Worker Health® context.

When an organization wants to apply the Total Worker Health (TWH) approach, the first step is for multiple people to form a TWH team. The challenges they encounter will be too complex for any one person to lead alone. I have investigated it in various industries, including healthcare, construction, and public schools. Here, I provide insights on how shared leadership is foundational to addressing burnout and establishing a better culture of TWH across industries. 

Healthcare burnout 

The burden of healthcare work was made evident during the pandemic. Burnout amongst healthcare workers was high, resulting in a significant turnover that persists even after the pandemic. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said, “We owe all health workers—from doctors to hospital custodial staff—an enormous debt. And as we can clearly see and hear throughout this Surgeon General’s Advisory, they’re telling us what our gratitude needs to look like real support and systemic change that allows them to continue serving to the best of their abilities." Industry leaders are now grappling with how to address this so that they can attract and retain talent.

 Applying team elements from space exploration 

I had a chance to learn more about this at the 39th Annual Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference in Chicago, IL. Several sessions, including my own, focused on solving healthcare workforce challenges. Topics included solutions for individuals, teams, leaders, and systems. There were also a few leader perspective panels where healthcare leaders spoke about their needs and opportunities.  

However, the session that got me thinking the most about healthcare leadership was actually about space exploration. The session panelists highlighted how teams formed at NASA to solve the complex challenge of getting people into space and off to Mars. One researcher talked about how team members can self-organize to tackle workplace goals. In the process of forming the team, multiple team members, all with diverse skill sets, tend to emerge as leaders. Traditional theories of leadership tend to focus on hierarchies. However, in the past few decades, we have realized that it may be advantageous for multiple people to assume leadership roles.

Shared leadership for TWH in healthcare

This is especially important in the context of TWH. People in roles such as safety, risk management, HR, wellness, etc., and management and worker representatives should form an interdisciplinary team to address how their organization protects and promotes the worker's overall health.

Teamwork and leadership-based work improvement strategies are not new to the healthcare industry. However, I believe that leveraging these for the benefit of workforce health, safety, and well-being is in its infancy. I began to address this in my recently published paper in the American Journal of Public Health's special issue on health worker mental health. In the paper, I make the case that there are several threats to successful healthcare leadership and that current leadership development structures do not adequately prepare healthcare leaders to tackle systems challenges that impact workforce health. Furthermore, if we want to engage healthcare workers in these interdisciplinary teams to tackle complex TWH challenges, we need to consider how their work environment may or may not support their engagement. It will be hard for healthcare workers to step into leadership roles when they work in environments with high demands and few resources to meet those demands.

The researchers in the session about NASA teams posed the question: How can we select and train people who can share leadership in teams? My TWH research on this topic suggests that major factors may be 1) whether they identify as a leader and 2) whether their current workload would support their leadership engagement. As one frontline healthcare worker told me, “Think that maybe like one of the biggest barriers - and on top of that too is just the work burden that’s put on us - It’s like, do we even have the time?” In other words, the biggest barrier will be a lack of time due to excessive workloads.

Next steps

Leadership plays a pivotal role in TWH across all industries. In space exploration and healthcare, team members must work together to achieve common TWH goals, solve problems that impede workforce health, and innovate to ensure that TWH efforts are relevant and effective. If the healthcare industry wants to attract and retain talent, it must rethink its organizational strategy to protect and promote workforce health, safety, and well-being. To ensure such efforts are relevant and successful, they must consider how they identify and form teams of people who can share leadership to advance all staff's health, safety, and well-being.