7 Concrete Steps You Can Take to Avoid Burnout

80% of physicians report experiencing burnout and nearly half report plans to change career paths. That’s a staggering problem!

We got into medicine to help people and make a difference in the world, but we often feel crushed by the administrative burdens of clinical medicine, and we feel spurned by the society we chose to serve. I have seen firsthand how a controlling bureaucracy can decimate physicians’ aspirations and cause the burnout that some are now calling a national health crisis.

Many thought leaders have taken to referring to “burnout” as “moral injury.” Debating the merits of the different terms is a topic for a future discussion, but you can see from the terminology that the concept touches people very deeply.

Joy is a choice!

I remember being on a hospital rotation when I was a medical student where everyone was unhappy. The patients, the doctors, the residents, the students, and the nurses were all unhappy all the time. To avoid offending anyone, I won’t name the specialty, but it was amazingly consistent how much disharmony and discontent pervaded the patients and staff on that rotation.

Personally, I had a great rotation!

I learned a ton, got a wide breadth of hands-on experience, and aced the rotation while I was at it. It was even fun, despite the frown permanently plastered on everyone else’s face.

Each morning, I determined for myself that it was going to be a good day. I chose to believe that I could learn something from the rotation and have a great experience despite the attitudes of my colleagues. You know what?

It worked!

So how did I avoid burnout on that rotation? I just decided to!

Does that sound like the movie Pollyanna, or a motivational cat poster?

If so, I understand. I get that response a lot when I talk about my job. I still love coming to work every day. I still love my patients. I still love my team. I still love being a doctor.

Oh sure, there are lots of days when I’m frustrated about some administrative bottleneck I’m hitting, or the electronic medical record system goes down AGAIN, or a patient no-shows me for the third time. Those little moments of frustration don’t define me or my career, because I refuse to let that happen.

Maybe you’re thinking, “The philosophy all sounds nice, but that’s just not reality. How do I get there?”

Here are a few concrete steps you can take to deal with burnout.

    1. Convert your daily pain points to joy-defining moments.  This takes some practice.  Let’s say you have a meeting you go to every day that is boring and feels like a waste of time.  Find an opportunity to have a great conversation with just one person.  Can’t think of anything to say?  Try this: pick one person to go up to and compliment them on a specific aspect of their job performance which you’ve observed, or just tell them thank you for being part of the team.  That simple action may make someone’s day, week, or month.  They’ll feel amazing and so will you.
    1. Embrace the 1%.  Every specialty has an aspect that most people in that specialty can’t stand.  It represents 1% of the specialty, but it’s that part that can consume you.  In cardiology, it’s treating atypical chest pain.  In Rheumatology, it’s fibromyalgia.  In GI, it’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  Many gastroenterologists hate spending time treating IBS.  It can be frustrating because the pain patients experience can be horrible and our treatments are limited.  I trained myself during fellowship to find IBS fascinating.  I worked hard to make it an intellectual exercise to try to figure out how it works and how to treat it.  I love my IBS patients, and I tend to have a lot of success in helping them.  I embrace the 1% so I can choose to enjoy it.  Many people don’t make this choice and find themselves consumed with the pain it can bring.  
    1. Take care of yourself.  Eat right, get sleep, and exercise.  You won’t have the energy to tackle difficult emotions when you aren’t running on full power.
    1. Get involved!  Fill out surveys, join committees, write letters to administrators, pass concerns up through your department heads.  Most administrators are actually good people, not the boogeymen (and women) many physicians think them to be.  Pass your concerns up the chain.  The best way to improve the system is to take part in its development.  
    1. Be thankful.  Grateful people have a hard time being angry.  Find something to be thankful for each day.  Better yet, find something specific to be thankful for, then go thank someone responsible for that thing.  Write a thank you letter or email and send it out.  You’ll lift someone up and that will pull you up too.  
    1. Take care of your family.  Be sure you don’t spend all of your emotional and mental energy at work and leave nothing in the tank for when you come home.  Nothing burns you out faster than coming home and encountering strife when you need peace.  Spend time with your spouse and with your kids.  Turn the phone and TV off.  Go outside and spend time together.  Enjoy life with your family.  
    1. Share in the joy of others.  Learn to acquire joy from good things happening to patients, students, nurses, staff, and family.  Share in their joy instead of being jealous for their good outcomes.  If you share in the joy of others, there are a lot more opportunities to experience joy each day, since you’re no longer relying on your own experiences to produce joy.

Joy is a choice and burnout is not inevitable.

Conclusion

You are in control of your career and your income. You need to believe that you are a victor, not a victim, and you can maximize your income and your influence while having a fulfilling career.

You worked hard to get where you are. Why be miserable? The first step is to believe that burnout is NOT a certainty. Then, start taking some of these concrete steps to reclaiming joy in your life.

Leave a comment below and tell us something you do that brings joy to yourself or to others. What do you do to avoid burnout?

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