With the COVID-19 pandemic inflicting havoc on everyone, there is no doubt that physicians and other health care workers are most affected. The looming fear for yourself and your family adds to the current burden of responsibilities you encounter and conquer every day.
When the pandemic started in 2020, the struggle was about finding a cure and controlling the spread of the virus. With the advent of vaccines in 2021, the struggle transitions to new case surges, vaccine hesitancy, counteracting the claims of anti-vaxxers, and coping with the presence of unknown mutations or variants of the virus. The burden becomes heavier when politics begin to meddle with science or when traditional antics replace the value of the results of well-reviewed studies.
The struggle goes on, and it may linger for a long time unless herd immunity until herd immunity achieved. And the longer it remains, the more physician burnout it causes.
As a physician, you begin to treat patients like family. Losing a patient to a chronic disease or an unbeatable infection also means dying to a part of yourself.
And as long as we do not recognize physician burnout as a crisis that could potentially put many lives at risk, we will continue bearing the consequences of suboptimal patient care. Unfortunately, society has a long way to acknowledge the stress faced by physicians and other health care providers.
Although bureaucracy and the working environment highly influence our propensity to go into burnout, we can start working on ourselves to lessen the load.
How do we survive death from a thousand cuts daily? Here are a few tips to my fellow doctors who are struggling to make it through, one day at a time:
Practice self-care. Practicing self-care is by far the basic, most straightforward, and most crucial step in addressing burnout. And when we say “self-care,” it is not just about giving yourself a trip to the spa, but rather, it is a carefully crafted, personalized strategy designed for you to look after yourself. It often involves not just your “me” time but also your attention towards multiple aspects such as family, career, community, and spirituality.
Understand that you can never give what you do not have. You cannot give rest and tranquility if you are chaotic yourself. You have to take time to care for yourself before you step into the waters of caring for others. So slice some time for that hobby that you have long forgotten, that healthy lifestyle you have been planning for years, that exercise routine you want to try out – and make them happen.
Set boundaries and learn to say no. A physician named Dr. Murphy was quoted to say, “you cannot be all things to all people.” This quote means that even physicians need to create boundaries regarding schedules, patient volume, and working hours per week.
And not just that, it is vital to emphasize and clarify your “off-time” towards your colleagues, employers, patients, and even yourself. It has been noted that physicians working on flexible hours and part-time physicians are more satisfied with their careers.
Give your institution a chance to improve by voicing out your concerns. Not all hospital administrators are experienced clinicians; some are not even doctors. They cannot empathize with the brunt a clinician carries after seeing patients.
Research shows that organizational strategies are more effective than just personalized strategies in addressing burnout. Thus, have an appointment with your medical director and voice suggestions to improve your working environment. There is nothing to lose but a lot to gain if your administration implements strategies to counter burnout.
Life will continue to be an everyday challenge for doctors in light of the pandemic. However, these challenges can be readily overcome with the right mindset and the right approach. To accomplish its goal for patients and public health, all stakeholders must work hand in hand in developing and implementing strategies against physician burnout. Let’s face it: If our health care providers are unhealthy, how do you suppose it will affect the care of patients?
Tomi Mitchell is a family physician.
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