Burnout amongst physicians is real and at an all-time high. This was even highlighted on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” where a resident physician surgeon imploded after a series of stressors that happened over time. She experienced the loss of a patient during surgery and of a loved one that were not addressed. Coupled with the long work hours, the type-A personality and increased demands, this led to her state of burnout that no one recognized because they felt she was coping. Organizations need to do a better job of paying attention to the emotional well-being of physicians, and physicians need to become aware of their own state of emotional well-being.
There are many reasons for the increase in burnout such as working longer hours, more administrative work, less time for family and social interactions and increased personal demands. Some physicians will reach a point where they feel like leaving the profession that they once loved. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight.
Just like the episode referenced, a series of events, stressors and changes happen over time that build up to a point where you start to feel like you can’t escape. Physicians must be aware of their own strengths, beliefs, emotions, thoughts and behavior. If physicians are not paying attention to what’s going on around them, by the time they are aware and address what’s happening, it may be too late. Combating burnout and promoting a positive state of emotional well-being for health care providers takes a multi-faceted approach.
Support work-life balance
It’s important for health care professionals to develop work-life balance early on. The nature of the job can make it difficult to find a balance between personal and professional life. Physicians need to identify what is important to them in their personal and professional lives and decide what takes priority when the struggle to be present for both arises. Employers must also support work-life balance and provide an environment that’s healthy and flexible. Physicians who experience burnout, often leave organizations due to patient volume, misalignment of expectations and lack of administrative support. It’s impossible for physicians to be present for others without having a collaborative, supportive work environment. Physicians who are happy at home and in their personal lives will be more productive and motivated at work and less likely to burn out. The result of organizations supporting work-life balance can result in physicians having a positive sense of well-being and organizations that thrive under their leadership.
Everyone’s personal and professional lives will go through various stages. Physicians must learn to adapt to the various stages of their personal and professional lives. They need to be aware when life events or work demands increase and cause them to feel the stress of having to being fully present for work and family. Being aware of what’s important and learning to be flexible can help make the stressful times manageable. Learning how to deal with these challenges, makes it easier to balance. Organizations need to develop strategies that help physicians self-calibrate and promote their own wellness, which teach habits and qualities to promote resilience in challenging situations and that help physicians in developing personal interests, engage in self-care and protect and nurture relationships. Organizations can support physicians through this changing health care environment by providing resources such as coaching to help them move from survival mode to a state of fulfillment.
Allow time to recoup
Learning to take the time to recoup in between challenging times is also important. Time is needed to allow your mind to develop a new set-point so that it’s easier to be resilient and bounce back.
Physicians will then become more focused, more productive and better prepared to deal with the next challenge that comes their way. Chronic stress develops when negative situations to continue to build without allowing time to recoup. It’s difficult to sustain living with constant stress and having no time for fun and relaxation. Physicians must create the life they want to live and believe it can happen. Organizations can encourage physicians to find time for hobbies and outside interests that give them fulfillment. They can also provide organizational activities that allow physicians to have leisure time with colleagues and have a break from the daily stress of the job.
A village approach
Developing a state of emotional well-being for physicians is important because one thing we know is that the state of a physician’s’ mental health has a direct correlation to the quality of care a patient receives. The care goes down as physician burnout increases. The physician’s own mental state is at risk as chronic stress and burnout can lead to depression, anxiety and in some cases suicide. Establishing a village of supporters is necessary as it is difficult to maintain wellness and stability alone. The collaboration of employers, family and community is important to ensure the emotional well-being of physicians. We must invest in the wellness of physicians for the benefit of everyone involved; the physician, their family members, patients and organizations. Without the proper organizational support, there is a lot of pressure on physicians to try to deal with burnout and figure it out themselves. They are told to eat right, exercise, meditate, be mindful and heal themselves without guidance or someone who can hold them accountable. They need a long-term solution. Offering wellness programs that includes coaching, healthy lifestyle habits, peer groups and activities and counseling can help physicians. More importantly, early intervention and prevention can reduce the rate of burnout. We need to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and lack of emotional well-being and offer help before it becomes chronic and debilitating. Organizations that offer support will not only have an improvement in their emotional and physical well-being of physicians, but they will also see an increase in morale and loyalty which will help organizations reach their goals and organizational mission of providing optimal care to patients.
Lisa Herbert is a physician who blogs at Just the Right Balance.
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