Burned Out? How Doctors Recover Their Spark

Shelly M. Reese


July 28, 2011

In This Article

The Importance of Meaningful Pursuits

In February 2008 LocumTenens.com asked 1200 physicians how they avoid burnout. The answer: They aren't couch potatoes. Respondents listed participating in sports, travel, and outdoor activities as their top 3 burnout busters . Many mentioned volunteer and humanitarian commitments as well.

A recent posting on the Medscape discussion board posed the same question. "Exercise every day," advised one physician. "I'm not a gym rat or fitness freak. I'm just talking about a 20-minute walk. Leave the cell phone at home." Another advised, "Buy a small vacation house in Sarasota and go there for 5 days every 4-6 weeks. I did, starting 4 years ago before I sold my practice, and I came back refreshed and recharged."

Diet, exercise, and rest are important components to health, but wellness is a holistic pursuit with physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual components.

Physicians need to remember -- or discover -- what brings them joy and fulfillment. It might be making dinner with family or friends, listening to music, bowling, traveling, volunteering, or participating in spiritual or religious activities. Whatever pastime they find fulfilling, Dr. Aggarwal says, doctors need to purposefully reintroduce it into their lives.

As easy as it sounds, it can be very difficult to break out of the cycle of perpetual motion, Dr. Hyman says.

"When you have a really strong work ethic and take time off for yourself, you feel guilty about the free time. It takes you a while to get over that," he says. It was only when he brought music back into his life that he was able to accept and embrace the difference between "what I want to be doing and what I do for a living."

Although it definitely falls in the "doing" category, finding a long-term way to deal with burnout means addressing workplace issues as well, says Gabriela Cora, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Leading Under Pressure: Strategies to Avoid Burnout, Increase Energy, and Improve Your Well-Being. That means finding a way to take control over your environment and workload and learning to say "no."

"Don't just look at yourself," she advises, "Look at your practice. Is your nurse practitioner or your office manager stressed out? Look at your turnover. What's the mood? Burnout often happens when there is a lack of processes but also a lack of lifestyle balance. You need a combination of organizational skills and lifestyle strategy to tackle it."

The Cost of Stoicism

Finally, Dr. Hyman says, doctors need to understand that in ignoring the symptoms of burnout, they aren't being stoic; rather, they are doing a disservice to themselves, to the people around them, and to their patients.

"In the field of medicine, particularly for people who trained 20 or 30 years ago, the mindset was that you really needed to forego everything to practice medicine. But when you feel so bad about yourself and your workplace, to go there and be cheerful and give 100% is very difficult," he says.

Fortunately, he says, that's not a problem for him anymore.

"Now when I go to work I'm ready to be there. I like my work and I do a really good job. I don't think the fact that I have other interests and that I don't love my work makes me a bad physician. It doesn't make me less empathetic to my patients. You have to take care of yourself."


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