Refuel and engage: small tweaks towards addressing burnout

Picture an alternate universe where you as a physician look forward to your lunch break so that you can refuel and engage with your fellow colleagues. In this imaginary world, not only do you have time to eat and converse with others, but you also have time to throw on your sneakers and go for a walk outside before you start your afternoon. And the best part of all, while you are taking this fantasy break, work isn’t piling up, you haven’t left any patients in the waiting room, and you feel zero guilt because this is accepted workplace culture.

I don’t present this scenario to have you long for something that will never be, because it should, and can be possible. Take a hospital or community health center, for example, chances are the nurses, technologists and other support staff you work with take a lunch break. Perhaps this notion that physicians are too busy, too time pressured and too important for a lunch break began during medical training so that we have come to accept the fact that we don’t have time or value the need for a break near enough.

Changing our collective mindset around a lunch break could be one small tweak toward addressing burnout. The Mayo Clinic recognizes the shared responsibility between physicians and healthcare organizations in addressing physician burnout and looked at 9 organizational strategies to promote physician well-being. They not only outline these approaches, but they also incorporated them at the Mayo Clinic to observe their impact. They specifically identified that as many institutions were eliminating their physicians’ lounges, they instead introduced a dedicated meeting area with food and gathering tables. The space quickly became too small for the peer connections it fostered, and they had to remodel and expand this gathering space. These breaks, especially to eat and gather, make a difference.

One of the key ideas from Tony Schwartz’s The Energy Project is that, “Continuous hard work, for example, eventually turns into overwork and burnout. Intermittent renewal is the antidote.” Unfortunately, our current medical culture continues to support this notion of overwork, which in turn, leads physicians to feeling powerless to take breaks.  In fact, when employees, in general, take a break every 90 minutes, they report a higher level of focus and improved well-being as compared to their counterparts who go relatively break-less throughout their day. The lack of acceptance of breaks also correlates with the problem of disengagement amongst physicians.

When it comes to physician burnout, we know we are past the point of awareness; we are onto recognition and intervention. The recent release of the Charter on Physician Well-being speaks to the commitment healthcare organizations are making to support physician’s well-being. Ultimately, the strategies don’t have to be groundbreaking to see real results. In fact, these small tweaks may be the keys to improving physician burnout – starting with this not-so-revolutionary concept of a lunch break. In our alternate universe, medical organizations would provide areas where physicians could convene for lunch breaks and even offer fresh, whole food choices.

For now, here are some ideas to get the ball rolling:

  • Promote a culture where taking a lunch break is considered an acceptable, necessary form of self-care.
  • Encourage our colleagues to gather in communal eating areas in our workplaces.
  • Start implementing strategies in your own workplace (where possible), such as a rotating responsibility to provide fresh fruits in the lunch room.
  • If working in a solo practice, try getting together once a week with other local physicians for lunch.
  • If you are a medical educator, encourage your students/residents to take a break so we can start this culture change early.
  • Start a wellness movement for trainees in your healthcare setting by advocating for healthy food options in their call room.
  • If working shift work such as Emergency medicine, arrange for a potluck for the staff working so everyone can access nutritious food during their shift.

I don’t know about you, but I have distant memories from both training and practice where I ate alone, fast, when I could, at my desk in front of a stack of work. My husband, a radiologist, has recent memories of eating alone in front of his computer screen in between dictating cases. He will also warn you that when you are the one who eats through lunch, you are also the one that both the technologists and other physicians look to if no one else is around.

We need to be the change that we want to see in our culture. It’s time to take back lunch breaks not only to regain the sense of community we once had in medicine but also to start tackling this beast called burnout: bite by bite.

Sara Taylor is a family physician and founder, Physicians for Physicians.

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