Do you have these 5 risk factors for physician burnout?

Long gone are the days of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when you would graduate, join a company or organization, and pretty much stay there for your whole career. Our own personal expectations have changed, and we are fortunate to be living in a time (and country) where we do not need to feel beholden to any one employer, or feel stuck in a job we are unhappy with. Obviously coming from a health care perspective, the sobering statistics on burnout and job dissatisfaction are there for all to see (and for entirely understandable reasons related to mind-numbing bureaucracy, computer work, and dealing with third parties).

Yet when one looks at other professionals — whether they be attorneys, public school teachers, or police officers — statistics on burnout are also quite worrying. Many of these professions are, like medicine, crucial for a well-functioning society. It’s sad if any dedicated professional who once loved what they did, finds that they’ve wound up in an unhappy spot. Again, from the health care perspective, and as someone who has worked closely with thousands of other doctors, I do believe that there are also certain character traits that make people more prone to burnout. I’m sure these would also apply to any profession. Here are five of them:

1. Idealism. It’s long been observed that most people who enter health care have the “altruism gene.” They want to work in a noble profession and make a positive contribution to society and the world. Initial intentions are good, and desires are mostly selfless.

2. Conscientious. You want to do an amazing job and leave no stone unturned. You are diligent and thorough. You are also a bit of a perfectionist and always “dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”

3. Kind. You are, by nature, a kind (and nice) person and want to help others. You don’t believe life is all about yourself, and will put yourself out — often at great inconvenience — to do what’s right.

4. Self-critical. You hold yourself to high standards in what you do, want to exceed expectations, and are hard on yourself when things don’t go according to plan. When something bad happens (as it always eventually will), you tend to take it personally.

5. Conflict threshold. You would rather everything went along as smoothly as possible, and you feel uncomfortable or uneasy when there’s some turbulence. This could be a new policy or protocol you have to follow, clash with a coworker, or negotiating a better deal for yourself.

Look closely at the above five traits and see if any of them apply to you. My guess is, especially if you work in health care, that most if not all of them do. But here’s what’s important to realize: Absolutely none of the above are bad traits to have. In fact, they are all good ones that you should strive to keep. The problem — and this applies to so many things in life is — is not per se that you are idealistic, conscientious, kind, self-critical, or conflict avoiding. It is that that you are too idealistic, conscientious, kind, self-critical, and conflict avoiding. If one can temper some of those traits, life is likely to be a lot better.

We’ve all heard the phrase: you can’t change situations, but you can change yourself. I’ve never been one to advocate for staying in a bad situation in life, especially a job, any longer than you need to. Make plans, and then walk away fast. But particularly in health care, work-related problems have a bad habit of following you around no matter where you go. For instance, bureaucracy ain’t going anywhere, even though one institution may be slightly better than another. Computers and spending a significant chunk of your day staring at a screen, is also here to stay. As are the realities of health care economics and needing to cut costs. What can make your life much better, though, and indeed even transform it — is tempering some of the above virtues.

Keep that idealism, but also understand the harsh nature of the real world, and don’t be too disappointed with what you see. Be conscientious, but don’t always bother with “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.” Learn where you can cut corners, be concise, and save a heck of a lot of time. Be kind and nice, but reign it in a bit. Be self-critical, but not too hard on yourself. And see conflict and tension as an inevitable part of life. Anticipate and expect those annoying requests and additional job demands, try not to get too worked up or let them affect you, and prioritize what can go in one ear and out the other, or be put on the back burner.

Be able to master these things, and you will indeed be so much happier.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author, and co-founder, DocsDox. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand, and on YouTube.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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