Burned Out? How Doctors Recover Their Spark

Shelly M. Reese


July 28, 2011

In This Article

"Delayed Gratification" Puts Doctors at Risk

Part of the problem, Dr. Aggarwal says, is that doctors are in constant motion. They're also very purposeful and, thanks to their protracted medical training, masters when it comes to delayed gratification. Those qualities, especially if they're mixed with characteristics such as perfectionism, conscientiousness, a need to be in control, and difficulty relaxing, can put physicians at risk, she says.

"When you are always doing, you can't step back and see the big picture," she says. "Often people know something is wrong. They sense it. But the way they try to work through it is, 'Maybe I'm not productive enough or efficient enough' and they go back and try to do more. Figuring out what's wrong really requires stepping back."

The workplace often exacerbates the problem. It's not just long work hours, demanding postcall schedules, and administrative demands, notes Pfifferling. Physicians aren't taught how to work in teams and support each other, and there's a stigma associated with reaching out for help.

What's more, although they're very good about preaching self-care to their patients, they often don't internalize those messages.

"When I talk about burnout I used to start with the medical aspects -- diet and exercise -- for preventing it," says Dr. Aggarwal. "But I realized that just put them back into 'doing' mode. Now I start with, 'You have to learn to sit and be at peace with yourself.' That hits home with people because most doctors can't just sit quietly."

Dr. Aggarwal herself spends an hour in quiet each morning. Quiet sitting might involve meditation, inspirational reading, listening to relaxing music, or just doing nothing, she says, and it's a skill that doctors need to master before they can move on to more active tactics for combating burnout, such as breathing exercises, walking, improving their diet and -- most important -- adding joyful pursuits back into their lives.


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