Physician burnout: (Un)wellness and the passion paradox

When it comes to physician wellness, I’m type A noncompliant. That realization struck me midway through my last vacation, which was notable because I didn’t travel anywhere, and the most extraordinary activity involved sleeping through the night.

Shift work, especially overnight shifts, has a way of inflicting sneaky havoc upon the body and minds of the delusionally hearty. After twenty years as an emergency physician, I should know better than to grind the gears of my circadian clock. Sleep isn’t a potholed construction of naps.

Academic emergency physicians are aberrant physiologic organisms prone to a particular form of unwellness. Clinical shifts often don’t mesh with various educational and administrative duties. Medical schools live during the day. When well-meaning colleagues or students offer to meet at a time that works for me, never does this imply 2 a.m., after an evening shift, though I often slump into “day” meetings clutching a coffee at what is affectively my 2 a.m..

What’s equally damaging, I believe, isn’t so much this distortion of time, but a distortion of purpose. When my “weekend” falls during the week, only an extraordinary strength of will can resist the urge to take this time as anything but an opportunity to get work done. This insidious mindset is nothing less than self-compassion blindness.

Vacations should serve as a panacea of sorts for such thinking, an opportunity to reclaim the shape of the week and synchronize my clock with family and friends. That said, by traveling nowhere this last vacation, I cleaned my head of new excitements and other distractions. I also confirmed a sense of melancholy that has crept into my vacations the past few years, an experience I couldn’t previously identify or explain.

I stumbled upon a possible answer on the 5th or 6th morning, after a few nights of uninterrupted sleep. My body was refreshed and energized, not just awake and lacking fatigue. I rarely run in the morning — though I often plan to — but off I went. In the sweaty cooldown, my brain tingling as if freshly scrubbed, I recognized what happened — I’d returned to myself.

Return to myself? Language wrapped in such spiritual cloth appears at once empowering and vague, but the feeling was undeniably uplifting and joyous, as well as strangely bittersweet.

Why bittersweet? I was clear-headed and rested enough now to appreciate the distorted state of my state of normal before this vacation, one that was difficult to recognize when I was in the middle of it.

Somehow, a screwed up logic emerged from this thinking, a warped analogy between vacation and the ethical concerns raised by certain early Alzheimer’s researchers regarding treatments that takes patients who are well into the throes of dementia and improves them only enough so they’re aware of their situation.

Never would I equate physician unwellness to a devastating, and at the moment, irreversible disease. But once my vacation was over, I’d return to the very habits responsible for this different me. The clinical and academic expectations hadn’t taken a vacation: caring for patients and documenting for hours at home, developing and teaching classes and courses, mentoring students, and writing a range of academic and creative pieces.

But these obligations aren’t to blame. Dare my younger self to describe his future medical career to a sketch artist, one guided more by gut than good sense, and it would be colored by emergency medicine, teaching, and creative writing. If I’m to blame anyone, he snickers at me in the mirror. “You are a creature of your own design, you lucky bastard.”

I’ll soon meet with my department chairman for my annual review and he’ll ask what I’ve said “no” to. For I have a serious “no” problem. Like many others, I love working on projects for which I’m passionate about, collaborating with passionate colleagues, mentoring and helping passionate residents and students.

My “no” problem is really a “passion” problem, resulting in a passion paradox. Contained within these burdens that contribute to my unwellness are the very things that invigorate and inspire, that impart meaning to my career. But dosed inappropriately, these potential antidotes to burnout and cynicism risk causing burnout and cynicism.

Admitting that you’re overworked is hard, even painful, for physicians. Recognition is the first hurdle. Then we risk having concerns interpreted as complaints, or serve as evidence to question our competence or ability to multitask efficiently. When we nerve up and say “no” to a meeting or a project or a conference, we may fear the aftertaste of criticism and disappointment from others. Lost in the well-heeded call for more physician empathy in patient care is the importance of more empathy from educators and academics for one another.

Physicians in general are burning out, abusing substances and taking their lives in alarming numbers. Even friends and colleagues throughout the country involved in meaningful and rewarding medical work aren’t immune to these “crispy” feelings. These grave worries lurk in the shadows, and yet, many physicians are reluctant to share these feelings with their directors and co-workers. Burnout is considered in the abstract, as a distant threat that’s terrorizing others.

The term physician wellness is partly at fault. It gives the impression that anyone beyond the wellness line is not well, when most of us probably function in a wellness netherworld between extremes, still caring and productive, but who might benefit from a forum where concerns are nonjudgmentally and constructively discussed. Instead, conversations bubble up incidentally, after we’ve finished signing out to one another, as if the process of sharing our patients problems creates momentum for discussing our own.

Physician wellness and burnout are complicated experiences with fuzzy borders. Standing at the precipice of a new academic year, my calendar and to-do list staring me down, I write this short essay as a small gesture of resistance. Only by sharing our particular stories can we begin to understand physician wellness in all its complexity, and restore and preserve the humanity and passion in ourselves that we desperately seek to nurture in our students and residents.

Jay Baruch is an emergency physician and the author of What’s Left Out and Fourteen Stories: Doctors, Patients and Other Strangers. He can be reached on Twitter @JBaruchMD. This article originally appeared in Littoral Medicine.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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