By: Dr. Francesca Vazquez
Stress is an intrinsic part of a doctor’s career. Physicians experience a high amount of stress primarily due to the high degree of responsibility they have, continuous exposure to fatal illness, busy schedules, and lack of personal time. This high amount of stress may ultimately result in burnout, which includes characteristics such as fatigue, poor concentration, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. If a physician’s burnout remains unaddressed, it can have devastating consequences for both doctors and patients.
According to research, medical students report a rate of depression that's 15 to 30 percent higher than the general population and 1/3 of physicians report experiencing burnout at any given point throughout their career. Compared to professionals in other fields, physicians are 15 times more likely to burn out. More than 50% of physicians suffer from at least one burn-out symptom and 45 % of primary care physicians report that they would quit if they could afford to do so.
If you are a physician, a medical student or within any healthcare profession, it's important to keep these tools at hand. The first step is learning how to recognize and identify the difference between normal stress and burn-out. As aforementioned, within the medical career, stress is inevitable. However, stress is not always bad. If handled well, stress can actually boost your performance, improve your memory and increase your capacity to handle a crisis. The difference between stress and burnout is how you recover in your time off. Unlike stress, burn-out mimics depression. When you're burned-out, you become disengaged, lack empathy and no longer connect with your patients and peers. Additional signs of burnout include:
•Loss of motivation
•Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
•Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
•Withdrawing from responsibilities
•Diminished empathy & compassion
•Isolating yourself from others
•Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope.
Burnout is directly linked to undesirable consequences such as lower patient satisfaction and care quality, higher medical error rates, malpractice risk, higher physician turnover, and poor mental health. However, all these can be prevented if the mental health of physicians is prioritized within the health system and we start to recognize the need for physicians to lead an emotionally and physically healthy life.
Below, find 5 more ways to prevent burnout within medicine or any health career:
1. Become mindful
In careers within sports, attention to the self is key for optimal performance. Training focuses on elements such as self-awareness and resiliency. This training is lacking in medicine. In order to prevent burnout, developing self-awareness and mindful practices is key. The easiest way to do this is to start meditating! No, you don’t have to sit still for 20 minutes before your 7am rounds. You can incorporate just 5 minutes of formal meditation or informal mindfulness techniques by just checking into your body various times a day and relaxing any tense muscles in your face, jaw, neck, shoulders, and back. Mindfulness techniques can help you become more aware of your own emotional reactions that influence clinical care. These practices can improve patient outcomes by helping clear your mind during stressful yet key moments during patient care.
Exercising for just 15 minutes a day can greatly decrease your stress levels and increase your sense of satisfaction. The main mechanism behind exercise for burnout prevention is its powerful ability to train your body to respond better to stress. When you exercise, you are putting your body in a stressful state. Your body can't recognize the difference between a kickboxing class and responding to a code. By exposing your body to these physiological sensations (regularly), you are strengthening its ability to respond well to a real life stressful situation and increasing your chances to bounce back from adversity. You don’t have to join a gym or train for a marathon. With just a short jog around your neighborhood, you are able to get some physical activity and protect your mind and body against the effects of chronic stress.
Regulating your sleep schedule will do wonders for your stress levels. Sleeping 7-8 hours per day will help improve your performance and mood. However, this won't always be possible within a medical career. It's important to remember that the difference between stress and burnout is what you do to recover during your time off. Adequate sleep, when time permits, is key for managing stress and maintaining your mental wellness. Sleep is one of the building blocks for keeping up with your resiliency building exercises. If you are sleep deprived, it will be hard to carve out time for family, exercise, and self-care rituals. Re-arrange your activities (during your days off) in a way that gets you in bed for a decent 8 hours.
4. Get support
By becoming increasingly self-aware through mindfulness training, you will be able to notice when your stress levels are rising. Instead of ignoring it and waiting for it to resolve on its own, seek support, coaching or a mentor. Never be afraid to express your uncertainties and limits. Talk to your health institution administrators about your needs and seek more administrative support. With recent changes in health care, physicians’ administrative responsibilities are on the rise, greatly contributing to their stress and burnout. By expressing your needs to hospital administration, you may be able to get more support, guidance and positive feedback.
5. Spend time with loved ones and colleagues
Spending time with your family, friends and co-workers is important for decreasing burnout. Carve out time to have lunch with a colleague or for face-to-face consultation. Developing a sense of community with colleagues is an aspect of a physician’s job that has been lost in the past years due to electronic documentation. Electronics have replaced face-to-face communication, ultimately contributing to stress and job dissatisfaction. Social support is essential in preventing burnout and should be set as priority, especially during medical school and years of training.
By following these basic resiliency-building techniques, your stress levels will decrease and your performance, mood, and lifestyle will dramatically improve.
Photography above: University of Colorado School of Medicine