Physicians: Find your “why” to help with burnout

So physician burnout is real. Most physicians understand this because on any given day — we are living it: falling reimbursements, growing regulation, too little time with loved ones, pathetic sleep schedules and massive debt. And as The Physician Philosopher, MD, so aptly pointed out recently on KevinMD, finding our “why” can be part of the cure and our reason for getting up in the morning, our reason for working, our reason for sacrifices big and small. Our “why” is what drives us and gives us a greater sense of purpose to which we can lend our talents and contribute to the greater good.

I would submit to you that this is because we are wired to ultimately prioritize the well-being of others over ourselves. I have known many peers focused solely on serving themselves, but I have never known one on their deathbed to whisper, “I only wish I had prioritized myself more.” By itself, self-service never works out well in the end.

Maybe your “why” is your wife and children, the environment, the underserved or even the overworked! But after having that long, hard, soul-baring discussion with ourselves and finding our “why,” we must lend ourselves some of the same advice and bitter-pill guidelines that we often give our patients when counseling them to address their own challenges.

We would never suggest killing a patient in an effort to stop their bleeding, would we? So, why do we allow our lives to become so consumed with “the process” at the expense of our “why?” If I take an extra shift today to make a little extra money yet don’t have the opportunity to enjoy it with my loved ones, what is the point? If I rarely get enough sleep in an effort to help more patients yet make a cognitive mistake which harms them or shave years off of my life in the process, have I really done my patients or myself any favors? We focus so much on the process that we often harm ourselves and actually dampen our ability to excel and serve the very goal we push toward. Our “why” gets lost, our passion becomes hollow, and we slowly die in the process.

I believe that our bodies are the most amazing machines ever created. And as with any finely crafted automobile, we must care for them well if we want them to perform at a high level. We must take great pains to change the oil, rotate the tires and provide them with plenty of fuel. If we do not provide them with the rest and maintenance they deserve, the fuel they demand — we will pay the price. And our “why,” our loved ones, our greater purpose, which originally lit the fire inside of us, will ultimately be left underserved.

So we must find our “why.” But we must also take a sobering look at what we need to be able to give our best to our “why.” If we manage this process well, we can rekindle our fire, find renewed purpose and invest in what matters most.

Brandon Shaw is a physician.

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