Faculty Spotlight: Burned Out? A UVA Professor is Working on a Cure

September 12, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

Dr. Julie Haizlip believes that knowing that you matter to others can matter a great deal to you.

That’s the message the clinical professor of nursing at the UVA School of Nursing and associate professor of pediatrics at UVA Health hopes to instill in colleagues and teach her students.

“If you think about medical training, we’re taught to think in a worst-case scenario,” she said “You think, ‘What’s the worst possible thing that could be about to happen?’ Because that’s how we save people’s lives. You think, ‘Chest pains? Rule out a heart attack first’ because you have to think like that. But it’s amazing how that negativity can really permeate everything.”

Thinking of worst-case scenarios can seep into daily life and personal relationships, she said. One idea to move away from the negative is to focus on events that create a feeling of importance or success.

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Haizlip tries to instill in students in the Nursing School the importance of considering what makes them feel they are valuable to someone. It’s a message she learned the hard way.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, a medical doctorate and pediatric residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a pediatric critical care fellowship at the University of Utah, Haizlip became an attending physician in the University of Virginia Medical Center’s pediatric intensive care unit, or PICU. When she started, Haizlip was one of five attending physicians who staffed the PICU 24/7. She also provided pediatric sedation services five days a week, and she had three young children at home.

“Like many people in healthcare, I did get burnout, and I got burned out fairly quickly,” Haizlip said. “In retrospect, I think that was, in part, the intensity of the work, and in part because I didn’t pay attention to how my efforts mattered. I was frustrated and I thought, ‘Well, I went through all those years of education, and I’m three years in [to a career], and I’m ready to quit.’ So, that’s not good.”

Haizlip attended an “appreciative inquiry” program, which promotes focusing on organizational success and strength rather than weakness. Presenters asked participants to recall a time at work when they felt good, engaged and invested in their jobs.

“I thought about a patient,” she said. “Then I thought about the learning environment. Then I came up with a story and by the time I left that conference I was like, ‘I feel better about my job and my work than I felt in 2 1/2 years.’ I didn’t know what [appreciative inquiry] was, but I needed more of it.”

She later earned a master’s in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. On the way, she met professor Isaac Prilleltensky of the University of Miami who introduced her to the psychological concept of mattering.

“He said mattering is about making a positive difference in the lives of others and feeling significant in the world around you, and that resonated with me. That’s what healthcare is all about, making a difference in the lives of others and having an impact in the world,” she said.

Haizlip wanted to share what she’d learned. That led her to the UVA School of Nursing.

“I was very interested in how we could apply this in healthcare education for clinicians so that they are less likely to get burned out and want to quit three years after they get here,” she said. “I saw more opportunities to do that right here in the School of Nursing.”

A 2022 advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy noted that prior to the pandemic, the National Academy of Medicine found burnout had reached crisis levels. As many as 54% of nurses and physicians and 60% of medical students and residents reported symptoms of burnout.

Katy Hall, a clinical instructor in the School of Nursing and a doctoral candidate, was studying burnout and how to mitigate when she heard Haizlip’s message.

“Her research on mattering was the missing piece that I was looking for in my research to mitigate nursing burnout,” Hall said. “I quickly realized that nurse mattering was what I wanted to focus my dissertation topic on. However, I did not know Dr. Haizlip. I had never met her. I was encouraged by my advisor to cold call her.”

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

When she met Haizlip, they “spent an hour talking excitedly about mattering at 90 miles per hour.”

“At the end of that meeting she invited me to join her research team,” Hall said. “That was two years ago and I have loved working with her and her incredible team. She is an excellent leader and truly cares about the people she works with, not just the research.”

“She and her incredible research team,” Hall continued, “have provided me with so many fantastic learning opportunities. I am excited about our work, thankful to be a part of this team, and eternally grateful to Dr. Haizlip for her impact on my life and research.”

The idea behind Haizlip’s research is that people find purpose in their jobs when they realize that they matter to coworkers, clients, patients and employers.

“We use leading questions to help people reflect on the positive, to recognize that even if 85% of your day-to-day was [awful], what about that one patient that, when you left, said, ‘Thank you, I’m really glad you were here?’” Haizlip said. “You have to be pretty intentional about recognizing the moments that you matter because we don’t savor those, we don’t pay attention to them.”

Finding ways to stave off burnout by recognizing how much you matter to others may not be the same as finding a cure for cancer, Haizlip said. On the other hand, it could help keep the physician or the researcher or the nurse working on that cure longer.

“If one more physician stays in the PICU, that’s worthwhile,” she said. “If you can make a person’s life better so that they keep coming to the lab and they find the cure for cancer, then it was worth the time.”

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Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications