Physician Burnout: Don’t forget to look under the rug

This weekend, I’m attending the SEAK conference, a large gathering of physicians seeking non-clinical career options. You might wonder why, after the time, energy Work Life Balanceand money physicians invest in their careers, so many want to walk away from it all. As we know, burnout affects more than half of all physicians. Many circumstances account for this epidemic – loss of autonomy, not feeling valued, frustration with increasing regulations and insurance company demands, erosion of the doctor-patient relationship, the disproportionate amount of time spent on clerical tasks…the list is long. As a physician, you’re probably cringing as you recognize the impact of each of these realities on your own satisfaction.

Many of these issues will require a change in the system in which we work or the culture of medicine in order to restore the sense of satisfaction that used to be the norm for physicians. If you are feeling burned out, waiting for a sea change doesn’t offer much hope. Is there nothing we can do to feel better now?

While it’s understandable to feel that our work IS our life, it’s crucial to realize that it’s only one aspect of it. Often, I’ve found that physicians focus their dissatisfaction on work, when their biggest source of unhappiness comes from somewhere else. This makes it worthwhile to take a look under the rug – at the other areas of our lives – to see where we have room and leverage to improve.

I’ve worked with clients who believed the source of their despair was work, when the greater concern was that their primary relationship was lacking in some way. Dealing effectively with their relationship led them to discover a more positive feeling about work. Others found that health issues were plaguing them, causing daily pain and anxiety. Once they addressed and found better ways of managing these medical concerns, they experienced greater comfort and confidence that permeated other areas of their lives. Still others, inundated by the demands of work and reluctant to share their concerns or feelings of despair, isolated themselves from friends and family. By reconnecting with these important people, their newfound relationships introduced a broader array of interests and balanced their lives, giving work a more reasonable and healthier degree of influence over how they felt.

One simple way to help us take stock of our lives is by using a “Wheel of Life.” This graphic allows us to easily see where we are most and least happy. By considering what would improve our assessment of each area, we can take steps to bring our lives closer to our ideal. We may still encounter the same frustrations at work, but as we lessen the dissatisfaction with other parts of our lives, we may find we’re better able to tolerate those frustrations. We might even discover we’re more creative and resourceful in dealing effectively with them. And we will open more avenues for joy to come into our lives. Work, although a passion and calling for many of us, is still only one aspect of our life. Let’s give it the proper amount of attention and not let it overshadow or limit the power we have to improve the overall quality of our lives.

About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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