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Values-Based Leadership Supports Well-Being and Mental Health

Eric Schmidt Lab, two people writing on whiteboard

In challenging times, effective leadership is more important than ever.

Over the past two years, members of University of Utah Health’s community have done everything they could to support patients—and fellow team members—through the many individual and collective challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the post-pandemic world gives no indication of a slowed pace or fewer challenges for our already fatigued team members.

As a leadership team, we have mapped our way forward to not only meet the expanding needs of our growing population across the region but to also advance equity, diversity, and inclusion; lead education and discovery; and innovate care accountable for outcomes. While reaching our goals in these areas is essential, how we get there is critical.

At a recent Health Sciences Leadership Forum, Thomas Schwenk, MD, Dean Emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, presented to U of U Health’s leadership team on “Enhancing Well-Being and Mental Health in a Values-Driven Organization.”

Schwenk shared several key things he learned about values-based leadership over a career that spans several decades. His insight can help us as we look to the future of leadership, culture, and the well-being of our team members at U of U Health.

Being Clear About Our Values

When discussing the values of any organization, it’s easy to get stuck “talking the talk” instead of “walking the walk.” Identifying values and constantly revisiting them helps create a tried-and-true framework that every team member can rely upon in times of ease and difficulty. This can be very freeing and helpful.

“At a fundamental level, having a values-driven organization makes life easier,” Schwenk said. “Everyone knows the right thing to do for the organization.”

It’s not enough to just know the values. We must truly live them and make them a deep, profound part of who we are.

Addressing Health Care Workforce Burnout

Clinical Services Core April 2022, Nurse and Patient with masks

Workforce burnout affects everybody in the health care system. Between 25 and 50 percent of health care professionals score positively on some measure of misery. Eight to 10 percent score positively on measures of suicidal ideation.

Health care workforce burnout negatively impacts patient care, early attrition, turnover, and potential for mistakes. These issues aren’t new.

“If you go back decades into the medical education literature, you can read studies that word for word echo what we are feeling now,” Schwenk said. “The issues haven’t changed, but the health care systems have, and how they do or don’t support the health care workforce.”

Recent studies show the positive effect on students and residents when faculty members disclose their troubles with mental illness or well-being issues. The effect is fascinating and worth noting: students and residents are then more likely to disclose their own issues and needs and seek more help.

Strengthening the Culture of an Organization

The interaction of the health care team is how culture begins to solidify and values start to play out. This only happens when people come together to advance the mission of the institution. This will not happen if we as leaders don’t create opportunities to communicate about it as a group.

The culture of every organization starts with leadership. This is one of the most significant components to consider as we move forward. While the culture at U of U Health is strong, we can always do more to improve as leaders and take better care of our team members.

“Yoga mats, ice cream bars, massage chairs... none of these are on my list of favorites when it comes to building the culture of an organization,” Schwenk said.

We need to shift our focus to the issue itself: leadership and how health care systems are managed. Only when we strive to improve our own leadership will we be equipped to take on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Values-Based Leadership

HSIR Annual Research Celebration January 2020, person presenting

“An essential characteristic of values-based leadership is the belief that the welfare of people is the end goal of leadership, and not that people are the means to the leader’s goals,” Schwenk said.

When we talk about values-based leadership, whose values are we referring to? This is where we as leaders must create more communication around the values to engage our team members, inviting them to share ownership of every value. Every member of the team must aspire to, endorse, and enforce the values. Only then will the values become our common ground, allowing our culture to thrive.

Call to Action

I challenge all of us to ponder the questions Dr. Schwenk asked at last month’s leadership forum. How have you contributed to a specific value of the organization? What about your team members? What values mean the most to you?

My question is this: Are we living our values? Are our actions aligning with our values?

These are important questions to ask ourselves as we move forward as a leadership team.

As we deepen our connection and understanding of our values, I know we will become better aligned—not only with our values, but also with each other. This will allow us to take better care of our patients and our team members, and we will be able to continue building a great health system and world-class medical center.


Amy Locke, MD, FAAFP

As chief wellness officer for University of Utah Health, Amy Locke leads the design, direction, and implementation of wellness and well-being programs across campus and the community to empower patients, faculty, staff, and learners to live healthy lives. In addition to her role as chief wellness officer, she is executive director of the U of U Health Resiliency Center, professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and adjunct professor of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology in the University of Utah College of Health. Locke is Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine and Health.

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