Within the last two weeks, I’ve read several studies pertaining to provider burnout. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve come across addressing this issue as well as potential root causes and expert suggested remedies.
One study suggested over 50 percent of us have fallen victim. Another suggested our so-called “creative” administrators and governing bodies, who are supposed to have our backs, actually contributed to the problem by sending us comparisons of our individual productivity relative to our peers to drive us to be more productive. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, this backfired and caused many of us to feel inadequate, decreasing our self-esteem and leaving us questioning our purpose. Throw in a good dose of PTSD courtesy of the aforementioned pandemic, and I’d be willing to bet that several of us have experienced a brush with psychological rock bottom.
My own burnout episode forced me into some heavy-duty soul-searching and serious reflection. I got lost in the world of seeing as many patients as possible, battling for more operating room time, and keeping up procedure volumes, prior authorizations, and electronic medical record keeping. I failed to notice early warning signs, including a change in my sleep patterns, apathy towards practice, and things I previously enjoyed in life, such as fitness and surfing. I was constantly irritable, especially toward those who were trying to help me. I started to slowly withdraw from those around me, and I actually started “ghosting” people in my life, concerned I would bring others down, hoping things would eventually get better and just sort themselves out.
Although my performance at work didn’t seem to suffer, I drew the energy to sustain this from other aspects of my life, ultimately running on fumes and maintaining a rather hollow existence.
Eventually, I recognized what was going on, but what was the solution? I couldn’t turn to the medical system that failed me. They acknowledged there was a problem but simply offered hotline numbers and empty promises. If anything, they were a major factor that brought me to this place. Although they promised to get back to me after I attempted to reach out, the calls never came. Every article I read seeking solace seemed to mention the same few tidbits of advice: family, friends, fitness, and making time for self. It sounded good, but I still felt alone and lost regarding where to start.
As my situation seemed to approach absolute hopelessness, I eventually saw a flicker of light. It came as I recalled other times in my life when I might have experienced some degree of burnout without realizing it, until now, becoming lost and eventually finding my way.
My path to salvation certainly included optimal nutrition and fitness but didn’t necessarily start there. Rather, it always restarted when I rediscovered purpose.
I realized my patients, family, and friends — those who really love me — also needed me as much, if not more than, I needed them. They needed me to take what I learned from my experiences, including the negative ones and especially this most recent burnout episode, to help and guide them through similar episodes of their own. This is my calling and why I went into medicine in the first place. This is who I am as a person.
Once this epiphany occurred, I was again motivated and focused on my nutrition and fitness, which were critical in sustaining my psychological gains and propelling me forward. Only after I regained my primary sense of purpose to serve others, which superseded my own needs, this ironically resulted in the preservation of self and ultimately a better, stronger sense of being and absolute rejuvenation. My sleep and mood improved, as did my attitude, motivation, general interest level, love of life, and even surfing!
My first impulse was to clean up my pandemic isolation-related dietary indiscretions, particularly my quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption, which, as we all know, is a depressant. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a beverage here and there, but with extreme moderation. My snacking and grazing habits also went by the wayside. I became more meticulous about my total calorie intake and selective about my macronutrient choices.
It is amazing how much nutrition plays a role in feeling healthy and overall well-being. Off this solid platform, I was easily able to dive back into surfing and working out, two things that have always brought me absolute joy and complement each other so well. I work out consistently and harder so I can surf better; I surf better because I work out harder and consistently. I work harder to do the things I love, which in turn helps me enjoy work and appreciate my career — one which I am so blessed to have — so much more.
These steps relit my burned out wick. I feel my light may be brighter than ever. I hope this light will illuminate my way for the remainder of my journey.
Do not allow burnout to exploit that which is inherently good and beautiful. Our profession will rise from the ashes. Look within if you are hurting and feel as if the world is simply appeasing you with empty words. You may find some of the most important answers you seek in a place you least expected to find them. If you’ve gotten this far, you have it in you.
Then, be sure to pay it forward. It is your calling.
Joseph D. Pianka is a gastroenterologist and author of It’s All in Your Head.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com