Understanding physician burnout: It’s a perplexity

When looking at why we as an industry have been largely unsuccessful in combating the epidemic of burnout that is plaguing our community, we must deal with our approach to solutions.

One of the biggest things to distinguish about burnout is that it’s not a problem to be solved.  It’s not a diagnosis to be made, and it’s not a condition to be treated. Burnout is a perplexity; a vicious cycle that must be looked at from various angles and managed through strategy and structure. Let’s break this down a bit further.

A problem by definition is something that can be solved.  It has a right answer, a resolution.  As an example, bacterial pharyngitis is a problem. When you prescribe an antibiotic, the infection is cured. Problem solved.  Another example of a problem is a flat tire. When you put on the spare or purchase a new tire, you have solved the problem.

A perplexity is something that is an ongoing circumstance, an entangled state, a vicious cycle. A vicious cycle is a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect that continuously aggravate each other. So, burnout is a vicious cycle that if no strategy or structure is applied will continue endlessly.  Let’s take obesity as an example.

Two underlying causes of obesity are overeating or eating unhealthy food. However, the unhealthy foods can cravings that drive more overeating. This is a vicious cycle that without a clear strategy and structure in place to break the entanglement could go on forever.  Addiction is another example of a perplexity rather than a problem.

So why is burnout considered a perplexity?  The etiology of burnout is not only multifactorial, but an ongoing and reoccurring phenomenon.  Furthermore, the system of healthcare that we practice in does not pull for our well being, therefore calls for ongoing structures to maintain balance.

Case and point: My first experience of burnout was in residency, yet even after creating the structure that led me from one of the darkest times in my life to creating a very successful practice, different life circumstances threw off the balance I had created causing a downward spiral that led to a second experience of burnout only 7 years later.  Moreover, the solutions that worked in residency, were not relevant seven years later.  I had to create a new set of strategies and structures set to what I was experiencing in the present time to recover from and prevent further exhaustion.

Understanding that burnout is more of a perplexity gives us as a community access to creating more meaningful strategies for prevention and management of this epidemic.  Defining more meaningful strategies and structures will lead to more freedom, happiness, and peace of mind in physicians.  This will ultimately lead to happier patients, staff, and improved patient care.

Maiysha Clairborne is an integrative medicine physician and can be reached at The Stress Free Mom MD.  She is the author of The Wellness Blueprint: The Complete Mind/Body Approach to Reclaiming Your Health & Wellness

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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