How to Manage Stress, Instead of Avoiding it

Photo by tetmc/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by tetmc/iStock / Getty Images

How to Manage Stress, Instead of Avoiding It

Stress is one of the primary contributors to burnout among surgeons (and other working professionals, for that matter). Most people try their best to avoid stress in their everyday lives. We’re constantly told to “live a stress-free life” – but that type of thinking is actually detrimental. Stress is a part of everyone’s life. Avoiding stress will only exacerbate and compound the issue. We’d be much better off by managing the stress in our lives, rather than outright avoiding it. In this article, we’re going to offer some tips for managing (instead of avoiding) stress as it arises.

Practice Healthy Habits

Doctors and surgeons encounter extreme levels of stress in their daily lives. When you’re literally holding a patient’s life in your hands, it’s no surprise that stress levels can be high. With such massive levels of stress, many people will turn to unhealthy habits in order to deal with their stress levels. Some physicians smoke cigarettes, or drink heavily, or eat a lot of junk food. These vices offer short-term stress relief, but are unhealthy and detrimental in the long-run. Try to combat these bad habits by forming healthy habits that reduce stress, like exercise, meditation, and socialization.


A solid night’s sleep on a consistent basis is absolutely crucial to managing stress. We’ve all woken up after a poor night’s sleep and been irritable the entire day. Doctors often have to work long shifts at odd hours. That can lead to irregular and unhealthy sleep patterns. It’s amazing what a consistent sleep schedule can do to manage your stress levels. Do your best to create and stick to a sleep schedule by setting sleep goals for yourself.

Recognize & Address the Issue

Many surgeons bury their stress and go about their days as normal. When stress lurks below the surface, it’s bound to bubble up eventually and negatively impact your performance. It’s important to recognize stress and address it, rather than trying to avoid or bury it.

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Hospital Characteristics that can lead to Doctor Burnout

In an article published on titled “Is your hospital a miserable place to work? Here are 14 clues,” Dr. Robert Khoo sarcastically offers 14 guidelines for hospitals to follow in order to make their employees more miserable and prone to burnout. Dr. Khoo details these guidelines to prove a point about hospital work conditions, and I’m sure many surgeons can personally identify with many of these. This article was written in 2015 but these issues are still prevalent in many hospital settings. In this article, I’d like to take a look at 8 of these 14 characteristics and how they can lead to a burnout-prone work environment.

Top-Down Management

When upper managers make blanket decisions without considering or addressing the needs of specific participants in different departments, it can be incredibly frustrating. Involving us in these decisions is a great way to ensure happy surgeons across the board.

Doctor’s Lounge

The doctor’s lounge has been making a comeback recently in some hospitals in the broad effort to combat physician burnout. Doctor’s lounges can offer a place for doctors to find a quick mental, emotional or physical recharge amidst what can be a very hectic and stressful work environment.

Quarterly Staff Meetings

It’s essential to field questions and take feedback from physicians during quarterly staff meetings rather than using this time to simply explain new procedures and protocol.

Dealing with Burnout Complaints

Take complaints of burnout from physicians and other staff seriously, as it correlates with patient quality and efficiency outcomes. Burnout is a serious issue and should be treated as such. Even better, take steps to help decrease stressors, offer opportunities for choices, or allow some control to be felt by those working with your system.

Irrelevant Metrics

Focusing on irrelevant metrics will only frustrate and anger your surgeons. Patient care is more difficult to quantify, but is the most important metric. Understand that at our core we are driven more by quality than quantity.

Patient Reviews

Patient reviews are important, but not nearly as important as great care. If a surgeon gets a poor review because they refused to overprescribe for a patient, don’t make them feel under-valued. Consider modifying mission statements and educating patients and family members that their satisfaction is a high priority, but not at the expense of their care and well-being.

Cutting Expenses

Cutting expenses while demanding increased productivity or compliance with additional administrative burdens of the human elements, while cutting expense in areas of support is a recipe for burnout or failure. Look for technical or system efficiencies that help save money. Educate surgeons and staff on process improvement strategies that save time and money.

Work / Life Balance

Many physicians and surgeons work crazy hours that cut into their family and home time. Encourage a healthy work / life balance that allows professionals to promote patient wellness by example or role-modeling surgeon wellness.

Addressing These Issues

These 8 characteristics of burnout-prone hospital environments are a serious concern to surgeon wellness. Let’s make an effort to work with our hospital’s leadership to address these issues if present, and provide the best work environment for patient care.  If you have tried this on your own and failed, don’t give up. We can do this TOGETHER! Let us know how we can help.


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Healthy Habits that can help Prevent Burnout Before it Strikes

We talk a lot about how to deal with burnout once it strikes, but ideally you want to prevent burnout before it rears its ugly head. Today we’d like to take a more preventative approach by discussing some healthy habits that can help prevent burnout. In this article, we are going to talk about a handful of healthy everyday habits that can be instrumental in preventing burnout before it strikes!

Healthy Eating

Consuming a well-balanced diet is good for your overall health – in addition to helping prevent burnout. Avoid fast food and junk food options whenever possible. It may seem like a lot of extra work to prepare a healthy meal but a little meal prep at the start of the week can make eating healthy much easier, especially when you’re busy.

Regular Exercise

Exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. Most physicians agree with that statement, but fail to live what they preach. It’s true that finding the time to exercise can seem impossible for a full time surgeon or resident, but there are ways to get your exercise in even if you can’t get to the gym every day. Bike to work if you can. Take walks throughout the day during your breaks. 

Take Breaks at Work

Many doctors I know have a tendency to work themselves until they drop. This type of work ethic is admirable, but can also have adverse effects. Working a 12 hour shift without a break can inadvertently increase your chances of making a mistake. Your body needs to rest (emotionally and physically) in order to perform at peak ability. Take short 10-15 minute breaks several times throughout the day to sit down, close your eyes, and recharge. 

Communicate with Like-Minded Medical Professionals

Talking with fellow physicians who are having similar experiences to your own is a great way to work through issues that arise. SurgeonMasters offers several excellent ways to socialize and communicate with like-minded physicians including web-conferences, podcasts, and local meet-ups.


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How Surgeons Can Communicate Better with Their Patients

Effective communication between surgeons and their patients is just as important as the quality of the care provided. In a recent article published in MedPage Today titled “How Well Do You Communicate with Your Patients?” Dr. Suneel Dhand offers a few tips for doctors to improve their communication with patients. In this article, I’m going to walk through these excellent tips for better surgeon / patient communication.

Sit Down

Literally. Take a seat and look the patient in the eye when you’re talking to them. Some surgeons have an unintentional habit of standing over patients when discussing treatment or delivering results. Standing over a patient and physically talking down to them is not ideal. Surgeons would prefer to spend the time to engage with patients. However, most of us are busy and want to be as efficient as possible. Without taking any extra time, just sitting down and conversing with a patient can make a significant impact in your relationship with patients.


Surgeons also have a bad habit of interrupting patients when they’re talking. Again, surgeons are busy and want to get to as many patients as they can, but you should let the patient talk and listen to their concerns. This will make the patient feel more valued than if you just zip in, talk at them for a few minutes, and send them on their way. Data shows that the vast majority won’t take any more of your time with this approach.

Involve the Family

In many cases, involving the patient’s family can make a huge difference in your ability to provide the best possible care. Patients are often confused, scared, or overwhelmed and may not be making the best decisions about their care. It’s often good to talk with a close family member who may be more objective and able to talk to the patient about their care options.

It can be difficult to implement these communication strategies into your own practice. But better communication leads to better surgeon / patient relationships and, ultimately, better patient care and outcomes.

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Longer First-Year Resident Shifts May Equal More Burnout

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) announced that medical residency programs can begin increasing shift hours for first-year residents starting in July 2017. While this new policy is aimed at improving outcomes for both patients and residents, it has many critics who claim that it may lead to increased burnout. I am agnostic on the hours, but I am passionate about burnout prevention.

Shift Increases

Currently, shift hours for first-year residents are capped at 16 per shift. In July, that number of maximum shift hours will increase to 24 (with an additional four hours devoted to taking care of patient hand-offs). Despite this change, 80 hours is still the maximum weekly amount for first-year residents. 

The change is aimed at improving all of the following:

  • Patient Care Continuity
  • Clinical Teamwork
  • Resident Learning Experience

Using The 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons, we should start with a Passion for Performance Improvement. 

Critics of the New Policy

The new shift policy has its fair share of critics – among them the American Medical Student Association. These critics contend that increased hours will lead to increased stress, burnout, sleep deprivation, and mistakes. I am not saying it is good, but reality is that sleep deprivation, stress and mistakes are a part of medicine. Our shared goal is to minimize all three and maximize care continuity, teamwork and resident learning experience.

Sure, total weekly hours are still capped at 80, but that doesn’t mean that residents are using that time for rest and effective stress reduction. There are also many stories of the pressures placed on residents to bend or break the rules. 

Can we all agree that the human body, mind and soul needs time to rest and recharge? 

If we all aim for improvement, mistakes are less likely to occur, and we will also improve patient care continuity, clinical teamwork and resident learning experience.

The 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons

I have struggled first-hand with burnout in my time as a medical student, through residency, and in private practice. Through these experiences I have developed my own signature methodology for preventing burnout. I call it the 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons. This system is designed to help all physicians across all specialties prevent burnout by encouraging healthy habits, and finding your own rhythm. Drop me a line today to learn more about the 8 PRACTICEs and prevent burnout before it strikes.


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