Medical Mindfulness: Beating Physician Burnout in 2016


Handling Physician Burnout

Physicians and other medical professionals have tremendous eyes for detail. They are keen to what they call insidious changes, those slow-onset, negative shifts that may occur in one or more of the body’s systems. They pick up on these by examining fluctuations in a patient’s weight, mood, complexion, and various other vital signs. Sometimes, a doctor can identify a problem and its cause quicker than we can say, “Doc, lately I’ve been feeling…”

If only they could as easily turn that lens on themselves.

Very often, people suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other emotional imbalances go through their daily routines unaware that they are truly “suffering” at all. It might not be until a crisis point is reached that they realize that what they are feeling every day, how they are reacting to the world around them, isn’t normal.

Occupational burnout works in almost the same way, and can be just as detrimental. The changes in a physician’s mood, personality, and functioning are subtle, and often go ignored. Maybe you’ve detected such changes in yourself of late. Maybe they go back farther than you thought. Before losing the desire to perform the job you love, as well as loyalty from staff and the patients you treat, take a step back and consider the following signs.

Consistent fatigue

A little bit of exhaustion (sometimes a lot) comes with being a medical professional. Long hours, unexpected setbacks, dozens of patients with a boatload of unique health problems—there are a number of things that can keep your head from hitting the pillow at a reasonable time. But while sleep is important, there are other kinds of exhaustion beyond the physical.

I’ll be ok. I’m just tired, is all. I’m tired… Does this sound like you? Is this your go-to explanation for why you cannot concentrate as acutely at work, withdraw from staff, and give less attention to patients than they deserve? Are little errors beginning to pile up? More importantly, does the idea of little errors, of not administering the best possible care, leave you feeling apathetic?

You shouldn’t feel tired all the time. It isn’t normal, or healthy. Neither is the propensity to withdraw from the job you chose. The job you love. We began this section with sleep, and you must be sure you are getting enough of it. Next is the work-life balance. You must make an effort to fill your life outside of the office with the things that revitalize your mental and emotional health. These aren’t always static, or low-impact activities: regular exercise aids concentration, and helps memory.

Temperament, Relationships…

Think about your relationships at work and at home. Now, think about them in relation to the last year or so. Is there a sense of dread when you step into the office, or pull your car into the driveway at night that wasn’t always there? What have interactions between family members and co-workers been like? Lukewarm at best? Incendiary at worst? Has your general outlook and demeanor become cynical?

If you suspect you’ve become a difficult person to deal with on the best of days, then it would be constructive to approach those closest to you and get their input. It shows them that you are mindful of the way you’ve been behaving, and aren’t too proud to take constructive criticism. Don’t worry: your authority and ego will remain intact.

There can be many underlying causes of anger, outbursts, and general orneriness. Some of what we said above applies here. Are you getting enough sleep, and taking the requisite time to replenish your mental and emotional stores? If the answer is yes, then it may be time to take a closer look at your relationship to your job.

& Career

How much time do you spend in the office, even when you aren’t there? This is to say when you are at home with family, in bed with a book, or trying to stick a Yoga position. The inability to mentally clock out can obstruct sleep and negate leisure activities. It can also drive a wedge between you and your loved ones, put strain on professional relationships, and negatively affect the way you view work as a whole. Tangible circumstances can hold you hostage at the office. Sometimes, it is up to you to allow yourself to leave. Sounds like another Zen riddle, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true. You must tell yourself it’s OK to turn off “work-you.”

It’s also possible that the reason you are so stuck at work all the time is because you feel, well…stuck at work. Evaluate the trajectory of your career. Are you making the impact you thought you’d be? Did you imagine practicing in a larger space, or earning more than you have been? Take heart in knowing that there are many practical ways to improve your practice and increase your bottom line, many of which we cover here on a weekly basis.

We will close with two reminders. The first is of the importance of people, and the role family and staff play in alleviating stress and burnout. The second is of the necessity of mindfulness. As you are mindful of the many shifts in the health of those you treat, so too must you consider the ebb and flow of your working life. Plato would probably be proud of that last sentence. In fact, it was he who once said that an unexamined life wasn’t worth living. How right he was. If left unexamined for too long, the effect can be paralyzing.



Brian Torchin

| HCRC Staffing | |

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