You know how you are only sort of aware of your partner’s work life. You ask about their day, know some of their frustrations and their successes. Maybe you’ve done things with their colleagues. But unless you work alongside one another, you really have no idea how each day unfolds. Your work selves are a bit of mystery to one another. It’s exciting but also, sometimes, a little scary.
That came home to me on a summer morning a few years back when I wandered inside from collecting the mail to discover my husband Matt lying on the floor with an icepack under his back. He looked pale and was clearly in a lot of pain. It seemed to come out of nowhere.
Turns out, he had a herniated disc. It took him out of work—he’s a radiologist—for a couple of weeks. And let me tell you: My husband never, ever misses work. I wondered how he’d handle the forced hiatus.
The recovery time surprised us both. Without the pressures of his practice, Matt slowed down. With some gentle nudging from his career coach wife (moi), we talked about work. I heard hints of dissatisfaction and frustration. I thought about all those headlines for stories about physician burnout that I’d seen in Matt’s professional radiology journals. I knew it was happening out there. But I was under the mistaken understanding that since my husband loves his work; he could not possibly be burned out by it. Boy, was I wrong.
Burnout is a syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion, and the emotionally exhausted clinician is overwhelmed by work to the point of feeling fatigued, unable to face the demands of the job, and unable to engage with others. Burnout has been directly linked to illness, divorce, depression and even suicide.
The fact is that burnout among physicians and other healthcare practitioners is epidemic http://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/a-burnout-epidemic-25-notes-on-physician-burnout-in-the-us.html and it impacts not only their lives, but also the lives of their families, colleagues and patients. Studies consistently show an increase in significant errors and a negative impact on patient care attributed to burnout symptoms such as a lack of concentration, a sense of overwhelm, stress, exhaustion and reduction in follow-through.
Essentially, the healthcare we receive is only as whole and healthy as the practitioners providing it.
There are many reasons why burnout is common in radiology—and in medicine, more generally. Too many to address here. The more immediate question is, what can individual physicians and other providers do in the face of a complex system that seems built to foster burnout?
Healing thyself, or tackling burnout, begins with two simple steps.
Step 1: Ask yourself, what am I willing to give up in my life and work to preserve my well-being?
With time and space to consider his options and choices, Matt chose to cut back his hours at work. He decided the reduced income was worth the upside, and it has been key to improving his satisfaction at work. Sometimes stepping down from a management role or getting off a certain career track can lead to more fulfillment rather than less.
But these kinds of shifts are not always an economic or logistical possibility. So, I focus on something more attainable: letting go.
In my work, I have found that busy people like to be busy. I get it, sometimes being busy with events, hobbies and passions can be restorative and key to our well-being. But sometimes it’s just filling time and keeping up the tempo. The practice of medicine requires intensity, rigor and focus. Some physicians struggle to downshift when they are off duty. It may be challenging to let go and just be. When I say, let go, I don’t mean to imply you simply get over it and move on. Letting go is a sustained, intentional practice of slowing down and being present that creates space for healing and regeneration.
Step 2: Find support.
When your work gets overwhelming or you need a break, call in reinforcements. Most people want to be of service, so engage them by asking for help. Talking to a friend, partner or colleague, as well as a professional coach, can be helpful in gaining much-needed perspective. Find the people on your team whom you trust and are willing to share the load. Just because you can do everything, doesn’t mean you have to do everything. And, as studies show, you probably shouldn’t.
The topic of physician burnout is important to me both professionally and personally, and I intend to continue writing about it. But burnout is obviously not only an issue in health care. We can all nurture our well-being (and resist burnout) by enlisting support from others and learning to let go.