3 tools doctors can use to prevent burnout

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It was a beautiful warm mid-July morning in Minnesota. And I was taken by surprise by my feeling of complete and utter contentment. I was with my family bicycling around a lake on a smooth groomed gravel path surrounded by trees, ferns and so many shades of green my breath was taken away. The cool riparian air mixed with the warmth of the sun, and the laughter of children up ahead floated towards me. The quiet crunching of tires on gravel was meditative, and I had a sudden realization:

I need more of this in my life.

Feeling burned out? You’re not alone.

A broad-based study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2015 using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) found that 54.4 percent of all physicians combined were experiencing at least one symptom of burnout, and there was a burnout rate of 63 percent among U.S. family physicians.

Classic definition of burnout:

A psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Frequently cited causes for burnout are the use of electronic health records (EHRs) and physicians’ perceptions of their ability to provide high-quality care.

While we need leaders of medicine to help create the necessary system changes at the level of the government and our organizations — which may include us — as we know this is a slow and laborious process. Fortunately, there are steps we can take right now to empower ourselves and reduce or prevent burnout.

1. Outsource what you can

“Day, n. – a period of 24 hours, mostly misspent”
– Ambrose Bierce

Time is a non-renewable resource. If you only have 936 Saturdays before your child turns 18, what is the highest and best use of your time? If the task takes you away from a meaningful activity that gives you joy, ask yourself if there is a way to have someone help you with it, or take it off your plate completely. Don’t stay up late baking homemade treats for the school sale, robbing you of valuable sleep, instead skip the guilt and buy them at your local bakery! Hire a great housekeeper and gardener to keep your house in shape.

At work, the most mundane chores involve the electronic health record. Is there a way you can get assistance with dictation software or a scribe to farm out some of the most time-consuming parts of your work? Ensure your nurses are well trained and have authority to enter and complete standing orders without asking you every time, like routine labs and screening tests.

2. Be present

“To do two things at once is to do neither”
– Publilius Syrus

Multitasking seems like a way of life for most of us. We take pride in doing as many things as we can in the time we have. We check email while on the phone, read while eating and half-heartedly listen to our children while we look over our to-do list. When we are multitasking at work, serious errors can occur. A patient is given a wrong medication or dose. An abnormal result is signed off without being addressed. An important piece of history given by a patient is not heard.

Unfortunately, juggling several tasks at once is just an illusion. We watch a juggler with three balls — but in reality, each ball is being caught and thrown in rapid succession. In research, this is known as “task switching.” There is a serious cost to task switching as it takes us time to refocus on a new task and seriously impairs our productivity over the course of a day.

Wherever you are — be there. Figure out what matters most at that moment and give it your undivided attention.

3. Break the time = money equation

I feel that the most important aspect to prevent burnout is taking control of your finances. In medicine, most of us did not receive a business or financial education. We put in long years and spent a lot of money to achieve our goal of practicing medicine. Many of us felt that things should automatically fall into place once we start making “the big bucks” and are sorely disappointed with the large gouges in our paychecks for taxes and other withholdings. We diligently pay down our loans, buy the house with the big mortgage for the status and the tax deduction, and max out our 401k, if we have enough left over. Add in some expenses for private school, and suddenly we feel like we’re running on a hamster wheel to keep up with our expenses. In a few years, we are disappointed at the meager balance of our 401k (depending on the political news of the day), the minuscule decrease in the jumbo mortgage and the incrementally slow climb of our net worth.

Adding to all of this, most of us work for money. We are hired hands that provide a professional service in exchange for compensation. Time = money.

We don’t work — we don’t get paid. No matter if this is for an illness, a vacation or going to your child’s school recital.

The key to contentment and happiness in your career is to be financially secure enough that your job does not imprison you. The best way I’ve found is to take the money you’re making, mind the gap between your expenses and your earnings (yes, there should be one!) and make that money work for you as hard as you do. And it will keep on cranking when you’re on that vacation, attending that school event or just relaxing on the weekend.

Earn. Spend less than you make. Invest. Repeat. Over and over until you have a robust stream of passive income. That is the key to beating burnout, living life on your own terms today instead of waiting for the mythical “retirement.”

There are many investment options that will assist you in reaching your goals. But the ones that can help to set you free follow these rules:

  1. Passive
  2. Income producing (cashflow)
  3. Conservative
  4. Historically better returns than the stock market (> 8%)

That day on the bike path in Minnesota changed the course of my life. I realized that I needed to get off the hamster wheel and start driving the bus. When I took control, I learned how I can become financially free sooner than I had ever hoped. Not with the goal of quitting medicine, not at all. Rather, now I am free to fully enjoy my patients, colleagues and staff because I choose to practice medicine.

Vanessa Peters is a family physician and founder, VMD Investing.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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