“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” ~ Kristin Neff
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My passion for physician health and wellness began with the realization of how widespread burnout is amongst physicians. In fact, rates of both physician burnout and suicide continue to rise, but fortunately, both awareness and support are also rising, particularly at the medical education level.
Admittedly, I was blind to the signs of burnout in my own home until they were full-blown. As I was educating myself about physician burnout, I became acutely aware that my husband, also a physician, fit the mold.
My mission to learn more about burnout, specifically what can be done to improve wellness, and therefore burnout, has given me a feeling of purpose and meaning that I can only hope for my colleagues as well.
What is burnout?
The most common definition of burnout is as follows: “A syndrome characterized by a loss of enthusiasm for work (emotional exhaustion), feeling of cynicism (depersonalization), and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”¹
What makes burnout so difficult to recognize is that it is more of a symptom than a disease, representing a bigger problem. Sometimes, it presents as a symptom related to the system in which a physician works, work stressors or personal stressors. Unfortunately, it is not an easily identifiable symptom such as pain or mood symptoms, and therefore, it can be quite serious by the time it is recognized. This is why physician burnout and suicide are often described on the same continuum.
Fortunately, medical training programs are prioritizing both awareness and discussion around resident wellness and resiliency. Changing the culture of medicine that perpetuates problems leading to burnout in physicians needs to start at this level. Confidential support, peer support, wellness initiatives and education sessions on physician health topics are just some of the ways we can and will make a difference.
In the article Ways Residents Have Found to Conquer Burnout, one resident said that when she felt burned out, she tried to not isolate herself from her peers, as they were the ones who understood what she was going through. Looking to people who share your experience is an excellent way to overcome many of life’s challenges.
The following is a list of 4 ways to help you start your journey to overcoming burnout:
#1 – Get creative
Creativity is a recurrent theme in my posts as creative expression is an extremely effective way to manage stress and find joy in both work and life. I have personally witnessed this make a significant difference in physicians experiencing burnout and can confidently say that anyone can be creative. The arts are being incorporated into medical training programs for good reason. Learning to harness creativity can not only improve physician wellness but also patient care.
#2 – Compartmentalize
Separating work-life from home-life can be challenging. It doesn’t mean not sharing work challenges and frustrations with loved ones (which can be beneficial), but rather trying to keep the actual work at work as best you can.
Early on in my family medicine career, before Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), I would lug both charts and medical forms home to complete, and in turn, never really felt freed from work. Currently, my clinical work no longer allows for this (thankfully) and even though much of my non-clinical work is done from home, I have trained myself to designate specific work and work-free time.
Today’s widespread use of EMRs pose new challenges to physicians where work is always accessible, so creating boundaries is even more important.
#3 – Be present
Mindfulness, a way of being aware in the present moment, is a very effective way to reduce stress and mitigate symptoms of burnout. By paying closer attention to our current thoughts, feelings, and environment, we are not allowing ourselves to worry about either the past or future. It serves as a way to make us slow down, both physically and mentally, which we all need from time to time.
#4 – Get outside
For a lot us, winter involves colder, shorter days, and in turn, less time spent outdoors in fresh air. Despite this, we must remember that getting outside is good for us, especially when negative thoughts start to set in. Although it may not be feasible every day, grabbing the opportunity to go outside, even when the weather isn’t ideal, can change your perspective, clear your mind and be another step toward overcoming burnout.
Have you ever recognized symptoms of burnout in either yourself or someone you know?
1. American Academy of Family Physicians – Physician Burnout (Position Paper)