Two hours of administrative tasks for every hour with patients. A proliferation of non-physician administrators deciding how the day is going to run. Little in our training about how to cope with uncertainty and change. It’s no surprise that burnout rates are approaching 60 percent. Despite being so common, when we see a colleague struggling with physician burnout, we may not know what to say. Responding appropriately can bring someone back from burnout and may even save a life. Here are some tips:
1. Approach the situation with compassion. Burnout is often referred to as erosion of the soul, and for good reason. With it comes a great sense of despair, hopelessness, and isolation. We lose our perspective.
Often there is no better remedy than the kindness of a colleague, someone who has walked in our shoes and knows what we’re experiencing. Approach the colleague with the empathetic aim of letting them know that you care about them, you’ve noticed that they are struggling, and you’re there for them. Afraid of saying the wrong thing? Here are some ways to convey your concern.
“I can see you’ve had a rough week.”
“I’m concerned about you.”
“I get why you’re feeling this way.”
“I don’t have answers, but I want you to know I’m here and I care about you.”
“You deserve to feel better.”
“I know these feelings will pass.”
1. Normalize the experience. With burnout comes a sense of personal inadequacy. Everyone else seems to be coping with all the stress. What’s wrong with me? Tell your colleague that what they’re experiencing is normal and that many physicians are having the same feelings. Let them know there’s nothing wrong with them. Make it clear that these harsh feelings do not mean that they are a failure. And, no matter what they’re thinking, that experiencing burnout is a normal response to the stressors of modern practice and doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong career.
2. Don’t problem solve or give advice/ As physicians, we’re conditioned to fix whatever problem the person in front of us has. It is quite literally what we are trained to do. But with burnout, we need to suspend our desire to problem-solve. Instead of doing something, we need to focus on simply being present with a colleague’s suffering.
On that same note, we also need to avoid giving advice. Giving advice sends an implicit message that the person doesn’t have the inner resources to solve their problem. Not only that, but the last thing someone wants to hear when they’re low on energy, overwhelmed by demands, and disconnected from any sense of meaning is “I know how to solve your problem, here’s what you should do.” Simply listening without suggesting any action can help someone in burnout begin the critical step of gaining perspective on their situation.
3. Help them connect with their accomplishments. When we’re in burnout, we’re focused on everything that’s wrong, with the workplace and with ourselves. We’re disconnected from meaning and purpose. Positives slide off us like Teflon and negatives stick as if attached by Velcro. Whatever our strengths and accomplishments may be, we believe we have none. It’s critical to find a way to reconnect with the things we are accomplishing.
Ask your colleague if they’d consider keeping a running list of three things they accomplish every day. This simple exercise can provide ballast against the pull to inadequacy and negativity.
4. Let them know seeking help is not a sign of weakness. We learn early in training that seeking help is a sign of weakness. We’re the head of the team, and we’re supposed to have all the answers. Yet, we can’t solve every problem by ourselves (no one can.) Reassure your colleague that asking for help is a sign of health, not weakness. Recommend that they speak to loved ones and other colleagues. Encourage them to seek coaching or other professional help.
While you can’t change the external landscape, know that applying these tips can make a big difference in a colleague’s ability to see a way forward. In summary, remind yourself to listen compassionately. Normalize their experience. Avoid the temptation to give advice or problem-solve. Help them see their strengths and accomplishments. Let them know that seeking help is often vital and is not a sign of weakness. Reassure that they can find a way to meet the intense demands of practice with much less anguish.
Gail Gazelle is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at The Successful MD. She is the author of Building Your Resilient Self: 52 Tips to Move from Physician Burnout to Balance.
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