Yep, it’s Christmas time!
The summer break, the food (love!), the family (more love!), the cricket; all things that make my heart sing, and I’m sure yours too!
However (without trying to sound like The Grinch), it’s without a doubt the busiest time of year. I’m sure this take won’t come as any surprise to you – it can feel like chaos trying to balance our jobs with the life admin needed at this time of year, and we all run the risk of our tanks running dry.
In fact, it’s particularly busy for doctors and the overwhelming workload can sometimes arrive with a heavy and unwelcome Christmas guest: burnout.
I really think we as doctors have been slow to accept that we might be subject to burnout, and it’s something that’s only just started to move into our conversations with more frequency.
Personally, I like the idea of trying to prevent burnout in the first place. As difficult as that may seem, burnout prevention in medicine starts simply and we’re doing it already; talking about it.
Burnout in medicine
The big issue, as we all know, is that the medical system we work in just doesn’t allow us to easily implement things like boundaries or taking time off. Let’s make this clear right from the beginning; the problem isn’t us! It lies in the structure of the career we chose and that’s why we (as the ones on the frontline) need to address it head-on.
In the Christmas and New Year season it gets particularly hard for doctors working in hospitals as well; as people resign, the huge workload gets pushed around and reallocated to those still there. More work, fewer people. It’s no wonder we’re having to talk about this – it’s simply not sustainable.
The risks of burnout
We all know burnout takes a huge personal toll, but for doctors in particular it’s an issue that we need to try and avoid rather than just manage.
- Doctors suffering from burnout have been shown to have an increase in clinical errors.
- Some research states that 58% of Australian healthcare workers report burnout, from moderate to severe.
- The same research observes burnt-out doctors can make poor decisions in patient care.
- Doctors can feel lonely, isolated and anxious; all too aware of their potential to make mistakes.
Burnout adds to the fatigue of the system – doctors can go from passionate and charged, to just managing to drag themselves out of bed for the day. The ripple effect just keeps going and going. It starts affecting our working and patient relationships, we can lose patience and empathy…and none of this is at all sustainable or healthy. I really could go on and on!
My top 3 strategies to avoid burnout
Alright, so we’re talking about it which is a great start! Now what?
Here’s what I suggest:
- Lower your standards
Good enough is usually fine! Embracing this mentality doesn’t mean being lazy or mediocre. It’s about being realistic. Ask yourself, is it critical that I do this particular thing perfectly? Or can I say “good enough” and focus on something else?
- Get clear on boundaries
Get comfortable with saying no. If someone is expecting beyond what is reasonable, then you need to speak up and make decisions that work for you. “Yes” and “No” are empowered statements that can stand alone – the more you use them, the easier it will be.
- Self-care is key
Be really conscious of making sure you take time for self-care, including taking time off! If you have a family, I highly recommend this includes taking time alone as well. A regular walk or exercise hits two birds with one stone here. Take the time to pursue something you love and switch your brain off from work and other responsibilities.
One strategy a client of mine came up with was something she called “aggressive self-care”. She was an anaesthetics registrar, and her colleagues all mutually agreed that there needed to be a joint approach of support in their very busy department.
“Aggressive self-care” was their term for looking out for each other – they’d insist that colleagues who were getting run down or struggling could take days off to recover. Their department was aware of this and approved the leave without question (obviously they were responsible in their approach and didn’t abuse this privilege!).
The pivotal point for change for her and her team was including others, and taking responsibility for others. It sounds counter-intuitive but caring for others is something we’re good at doing and it comes naturally to a lot of us – it doesn’t matter how self-care happens, or what it looks like, it just needs to happen.
Let’s talk about it
Even though the Christmas season is tough for doctors and can contribute to burnout if we’re not careful, it’s not all doom and gloom. The more we talk about burnout, the better we can be at managing it.
Most people who come to me for advice about leaving medicine describe themselves as feeling burnt out, and desperate for change (if they haven’t already resigned).
They often seek further support from a GP or psychologist (which I recommend), while we go wide and focus on the vital career basics:
- What’s important in their life?
- Where does their career fit in to the big picture?
- What are the options available to them?
The great news is that there’s always a solution. Not everyone who thinks they’ve ‘had enough’ ends up leaving medicine. Some do, but quite often we can find ways to modify their current career, making it manageable and enjoyable again.
It’s all about having open and honest discussions that help guide you to making positive change, in ways that work for you. That’s the first step, and we’ve already started!
Want to read more about finding balance in your medical career? Take a look at my article, “Find A Career and Life You Love.”