Physicians, Why Are We So Bad At Self-care?

Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS


June 08, 2022

Though self-care was already a popular topic before the first spread of SARS-CoV-2, it has become a nearly constant part of the conversation during the pandemic. We share ideas among ourselves about the ways that self-care can lessen stressors. There are tons of articles available online that tell you how to care for yourself, including this one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All varieties of videos and podcasts promote self-care as a way to overcome the limitations imposed by illness or quarantine, and experts hope that self-care will help us move from languishing to flourishing.

I really like the idea of self-care, but honestly, I don't think I know how to do it right. I reward myself with food, but that doesn't count as self-care when it involves potato chips and licorice. I'm also pretty good at buying things I think I deserve, but I can't think of anything I truly need. That's not really self-care, either.

I've read about all the things people have done during the pandemic as a means of self-care. Baking bread? My cupboards hold all the right ingredients, but I haven't made a single loaf. Spa treatments? My condo doesn't even have a bathtub. Learning another language? I have a subscription to Rosetta Stone that I've never used. Meditation? I can't seem to get my mind to settle. Exercise? I bought a weighted jump rope recently but didn't take another swing after completing the 14-day beginner regimen.

I'm not the only physician who is bad at self-care. As reported in Healthcare Finance in 2019, a survey conducted by The Harris Poll for Samueli Integrative Health Programs found that while 80% of physicians agreed that practicing self-care was "very important," only 57% practiced it "often" and only about a third engaged in self-care "sometimes." Cited reasons for not practicing self-care included lack of time, mounting job demands, family burdens, burnout, and guilt for taking time for themselves.

It is no secret that the pandemic has accelerated healthcare provider burnout, increasing our need for self-care. As physicians, we know this and, regardless of specialty, have been educated about self-care measures. Heck, we've recommended them to our patients. We're not so good, though, at recognizing our individual requisites for self-care or acting on them.

Scholarly articles about self-care for physicians like this one, written before the pandemic, suggest many of the measures I've already considered: rewards, hobbies, mindfulness and meditation, or regular exercise and healthy lifestyle choices. Interestingly, though, the experts also recommend avoiding depersonalization, staying connected with peers and coworkers, engaging in organizational activities, seeking additional training, and/or improving empathy skills.

Even with our accumulated COVID-induced stresses and strains, these suggestions still have value. I admit that as the pandemic evolved and I became overwhelmed at work, my initial instinct was to step back from the medical world and the people in it. However, the recommendations to reengage with colleagues, enhance my training, and gain empathy have been unexpectedly helpful. I've thoroughly enjoyed connecting with new medical partners and reconnecting with former ones (commiseration is cathartic, after all), and I've found that I really like watching the digital presentations from national and international medical conferences that I couldn't attend over the past several years. I'm also starting to realize that maybe the only pandemic hobby I needed all along was writing.

Fortunately, there are now more resources for physicians that can help with burnout and self-care. This article in The New York Times provides a nice review of several programs that target physicians and other healthcare professionals, like the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Foundation, the Frontline Workers Counseling Project, and the Physician Support Line. Many online articles, videos, podcasts, and blogs focus on the topic of healthcare provider self-care. There are even conferences dedicated to physician health and wellness.

A few years ago, I got my first tattoo — it depicts a rod of Asclepius (the serpent-entwined staff wielded by the Greek god of healing and medicine) along with the phrase "Physician, heal thyself" in Latin. Yes, it might seem somewhat trite, but I recognize that getting this tattoo was an attempt at self-care, too. It is a personal reminder that my wellness must come before all else. If I'm not happy and healthy, how can I expect to help my patients reach those marks? Now, amid the latest COVID wave, my tattoo has faded a bit, but its import will outlast this pandemic (and the next).

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About Dr Roni Devlin
Roni K. Devlin, MD, MBS, is an infectious diseases physician currently residing in the Midwest. She is the author of several scholarly papers and two books on influenza. With a longstanding interest in reading and writing beyond the world of medicine, she has also owned an independent bookstore, founded a literary nonprofit, and published articles and book reviews for various online and print publications. You can reach her via LinkedIn.


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