I have gotten to the stage where I take a more philosophical approach to the issue of physician burnout and job dissatisfaction. I see it all around me, and it’s impossible to miss some of the sobering statistics just browsing online any medical publication or social media feed.
There’s definitely a very real issue that’s been compounded by changes to health care delivery and the nature of the job itself (i.e., having to spend the vast bulk of the day glued to a screen). But something tells me too that there’s no such thing as a perfect job out there, especially whenever you are working for someone else. Every industry is facing massive changes in this new technological age. Google any profession and add the word “burnout” afterwards—from teachers to police—and you’ll be met with an avalanche of articles (even “CEO burnout” is a thing!). It’s not an issue that is unique to health care by any means, although every professional tends to fall into a trap of thinking it only affects their line of work. Given that we are where we are then, I can also guarantee you that there are experienced colleagues around you who are not burned out and do exactly the same job as you do. Can we learn from them? Here are three things they are probably doing:
1. They have found a niche that they are passionate about. Professionals who are in a highly specialized area that they enjoy are always happier than those who aren’t. They see themselves as the go-to source of knowledge and take pride in staying on top of things. Whether they are already an “official” specialist, or a generalist with their own special interest, their area of expertise is on show to the world.
2. They are calm. There are plenty of things to make one fly off the handle, from institutional politics, to a general feeling of being under-appreciated. Those happiest in their jobs know that being an employee, will always be a merry-go-round of new issues coming up and having the next new problem to fight. That bad boss, annoying colleague, or persistent roadblock to doing what you want to. These will always be there, and all you can do is just try your best to stay calm and measured as you fight your corner.
3. Well-rounded. They have interests outside of work that take them away from the daily grind and are a great source of satisfaction. They are not working 24/7 and have a life away from the desk. This could be a hobby or an outside venture that they are passionate about and enjoy. They look forward to doing this, and it refreshes their mind.
There are plenty more traits to list, but these are 3 of the big ones. None of this means that whatever is making you unhappy at work isn’t valid or worth trying to change, but at the end of the day if you aren’t going to leave your job, and find yourself staying where you are, you may as well note what some of your co-workers are doing right. It’s the golden rule of life: Your mindset is everything. And it applies to any professional. I remember when I was doing my final year medical school elective in Australia, part of my rotation was spending time with the ambulance service. I met some great paramedics, and one of them, in particular, recounted to me how he was burned out and bored out of his mind a couple of years previously. He then decided to find an area of his work that he wanted to focus on (in his case, it was something like increasing education and awareness), and go all out. He said something that always stuck with me: “Suneel, your job is often what you make out of it.”
One of my favorite and most profound books of all time is Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. A disclaimer: it’s not an easy book to read but really does impart a sense of perspective on our first world problems today. One of the stories he tells was that while he was an emaciated prisoner in Auschwitz, he would look around and still see some of his fellow prisoners trying to make the most out of every day, and many made checking on other prisoners and trying to help them, their priority. His conclusion, which became the basis of his life’s work, was that your mindset is everything, even in the most abysmal circumstances. Now I am not for a moment comparing being a prisoner in a death camp to the comparatively trivial challenges of job burnout. But the story should be pause for thought. Our problems are relatively small as highly-educated professionals in a rich country.
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