How Professor Jill Klein's work teaching resilience to doctors is saving lives

12/04/2018
Jill Klein was an expert in marketing and leadership who had taught at some of the world's best business schools when she heard a question that led her to draw on a more personal experience.
 
"After the financial crisis, clients started asking if I had any work on resilience," Jill says. As it happened, that was something her family knew about deeply.
 

Jill's father Gene had been imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II at the age of just 16, before he was set free by Russian soldiers. Decades later, Gene had started sharing his memories publicly.

"About 30 years ago, my dad started speaking to organisations about how he coped through the experience in a very vivid and memorable way," Jill says.

To address the questions she had been receiving from the corporate world, Jill sat down with her father and began developing the first draft of new teaching materials.

Now, Jill teaches resilience to future business leaders at Melbourne Business School as well as medical students and doctors – who face some of the toughest challenges that exist in any workplace – at Melbourne Medical School.

"We have lost junior doctors to suicide in Victoria. Sometimes they're overworked and at times they will see people die. They're going to be with grieving families, which will wear them down. The resilience work around these times becomes important for them, their patients and their families."

Originally from Miami, Florida, Jill now splits her time between Melbourne Business School and Melbourne Medical School. She has taught doctors at Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre and the Austin Hospital, among others.

"We use the resilience work to help executives, MBA students, medicine students, doctors and others in health learn to cope with loss, change or adversity in their own lives and share those tools with others, including the teams they work with," she says.

A picture of the work

As well as building resilience, Jill's work improves the way people make decisions by delving into the biases that can get in the way of good decision-making in tough environments.

For healthcare workers, these biases can lead to errors that harm patients. Jill teaches these biases and offers potential remedies.

"If I can help a doctor, one time, not fall prey to one cognitive bias – so that one diagnosis doesn't get missed – that could have an impact on somebody's life," she says.

Jill teaches her students to adopt a growth mindset early on, to ease the tension and stress when a struggle is encountered down the track – so they identify that struggle as a chance to strengthen their own abilities.

"The notion of a growth mindset is not to think of our abilities as fixed entities, because we then become fragile in the face of adversity. Instead, we need to see abilities as malleable and something to develop via practice."

The importance of compassion

For Jill, one of the most satisfying parts of her work is hearing that her lessons have helped someone cope with a tragedy.

"We had a medical student whose family went through the earthquake in Nepal. One of my videos ended up helping her cope with the loss in that really difficult situation. When she sent me a thank-you note, it made my year," says Jill.

"Another time at the med school, this young man told me he recently lost a parent prior to starting at the school, and that the resilience work gave him ideas and tools to get through this time of grieving and helping his family.

"I just recently ran into him on the street and immediately he threw out his arms, I threw out my arms and we gave each other a big hug. It was just that connection. To be able to do that is just incredible and so rewarding to me."

Shouldering so much responsibility – whether it be in a hospital or at the head of a company – can be an exhausting job, even when life stays on track. But with the help of Jill's lessons, the next generation of doctors and business leaders will be able to better help themselves and others even when things go wrong.

"My dad always says just don't give up – one foot in front of the other – and no matter how bad things get, just keep going."