Physicians face extraordinary professional and personal demands, and as a result suffer from burnout more than most. Statistically, 1 in 3 physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time, which creates collateral damage beyond the physicians themselves.
The three warning signs of burnout are: 1) Chronic physical/emotional exhaustion; 2) Cynicism; and 3) Increased sense of meaninglessness in your work. Physicians experience these symptoms in different stages, and can even experience them in a repetitive loop. Pay careful attention to them because their consequences can be severe. Studies show that physician burnout can cause:
lower patient satisfaction and care quality
higher medical error rates and malpractice risk
higher physician and staff turnover
increased alcohol and drug abuse
Burnout takes a toll in your personal life, leading to fractured relationships with friends, struggling marriages, and fewer positive interactions with children or grandchildren. Family life often takes a big hit when a doctor is burned out because it is one area of life not connected to income, and therefore seems the most expendable. Pressure to be more present with family only compounds burnout symptoms.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I'M BURNED OUT?
It is easy to assume burnout symptoms are just common stress faced by all doctors. "It's part of the job," you tell yourself. The difference between stress and burnout, though, is in ones ability to recover. After adequate rest and time with friends and family, you should be ready to return to work rejuvenated and expectant. This is a normal pattern for physicians. However, when you find yourself still drained after time away, it could be a symptom of burnout. You ought to seek help before it spirals out of control.
YOU CANNOT GIVE WHAT YOU DO NOT HAVE
Competitive pressure to perform is what makes good doctors. Nobody wants to be the doctor who almost flunked medical school. Every resident wants to be exceptional. Competitive performance is beneficial when held in healthy balance, but can quickly lead to burnout if you fail to guard against it. In a performance-driven field in which you are asked to give and give and give, it is critical to keep in mind that you cannot give what you do not have.
Most physicians believe the cure for burnout is to work harder. But the opposite is actually true. If you experience burnout, the answer is to STOP! There will be more on how to avoid burnout in a future post. For now, if you are burned out, find a productive way to rest and reduce your work load.
WHAT CAUSES BURNOUT?
Burnout is not an instant consequence but rather a gradual build. Let's scale back our perspective and see where burnout starts so that it can be avoided.
1. YOUR TRAINING:
You are hardwired to produce in ways that inevitably lead to burnout - if you're not careful. Dr. Dike Drummond, creator of TheHappyMD.com, suggests that most causes of burnout are products of your medical training. In many ways you have been trained to be:
A lone ranger
In other words, you must never stop working to save the entire planet in every conceivable way all by yourself. That may seem hyperbolic, but it's not uncommon for physicians to feel this pressure coupled with isolation.
2. MORE ENERGY WITHDRAWALS THAN DEPOSITS
Think of each part of your day as either a deposit or a withdrawal from your Energy Resource Bank. As a physician, you're sure to require more withdrawals than most people. That means you must be intentional about making deposits. As with a checking account, too many withdrawals eventually leads to a negative balance, preventing you from performing even the most routine tasks. In our next post, we'll offer some tips for keeping your energy reserves fully stocked.
3. CHOOSING WHAT'S GOOD OVER WHAT'S BEST
As a physician, you have a unique gift to share with the world. You're a healer in a world full of sickness and disease. You should always be ready to share that gift with others and to use your passion for medicine to the benefit of the community in which you live.
But...use discernment. Just because something is good, it might not warrant your time and energy. It's okay to tell people 'no,' especially when you recognize that there is little left in your tank. Give yourself to worthy causes, but do so within your mental, physical, and emotional limits.
The Jewish people practice Sabbath. One day each week they do no work. The reasons for this practice are vast and rich, but ultimately it comes down to knowing your worth. The Jewish people were set free from slavery in Egypt where their worth was measured by the quantity of bricks they produced. They worked 7 days a week to crank out more bricks for the Egyptian empire. They felt the weight of the world on their backs, believing that if they quit working everything would collapse and life as they knew it would end.
So when they were no longer slaves, they took one day off every week. It was to remind them that they were not slaves to their work, but also that the world kept spinning without their bricks. Sometimes we need that reminder: what we do is valuable, and the world still turns without us.
Maybe it's time you found a way to practice Sabbath: regular intervals of rest to remind yourself of your worth, and keep burnout at a safe distance.