2018 was a challenging and rewarding year. I accomplished and learned A LOT. Much of the time outside of my surgical practice was dedicated to studying burnout, resilience and wellness. Countless thought-provoking conversations, cramming every new article and study I can, and thinking about the issue a ton, I have come to understand just how complex and challenging a problem burnout is. For starters, symptoms manifest and affect each of us very differently. What causes mental unrest and takes a toll on me physically is likely different from many other surgeons who on the surface seem similar. And what works for one person experiencing the same symptoms may not work for another. It’s a very personal issue and needs to be approached as such. So while I can’t offer up tips that will definitely help every person, I can share my story and offer what I do as helpful suggestions for 2019.
Everyone around me sees how hard I am working. My wife, my kids, my friends, and my colleagues. While many years of emotional and mental injury from my career has taken its toll, I have avoided full-on mental illness. Through my research on burnout and wellness, I have come to discover that I might have post-traumatic stress or PTSD. Falling witness to other people’s trauma takes its toll. Knowing and not knowing that I may have contributed to the suffering of another human being is a tremendous burden to carry. Mental health research also shows that many victims of abuse and bullying will have a higher risk of developing PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Over the last 5 years, I have been healing mentally, emotionally, and physically because I now focus on self-care. Throughout my entire career I managed to get through all of the tough work and life experiences by pushing through, which can lead to unhealed physical conditions and internal open wounds. Though scars may remain, recovery and healing requires ongoing self-care with active physical, mental, and emotional PRACTICEs. If you could see my hot yoga practice, you would confirm that it is hard work.
Love What you Do
I still complain about the parts of my job that I hate. I have work-arounds for almost all of my electronic medical records. I protest poorly considered policies and procedures that make it more difficult to care for patients. The difference is that my complaints have a purpose. My purpose is to make a major positive impact on other people's lives. My purpose is being a surgeon. My complaints are to point out to others that the current application of EMRs and many policies do harm to either patients, health professionals, or both. Consider my complaints as constructive feedback. Where several years ago I was losing my passion for my career, I now love what I do, and I am happy to work hard doing it.
Don’t Overestimate Yourself
We are all capable of overestimating ourselves. Even more commonly, we overestimate what others can do for us and how timely they will do it. Frustration is the most common emotion that I hear from other surgeons (and myself) in response. What if we validated this or any emotional response as reasonable from our perspective? What if we factored in the delays of others (and ourselves) as how that impacts our ability to do all the work that we do with less frustration? What if we acknowledge that there are indeed limits to always just working harder?
Focus on One Thing at a Time
When combating burnout, focus on one task at a time. Trying to do everything at once can be overwhelming and lead to even more stress and burnout. Instead, find one thing that works and focus on that. Once you notice that it doesn’t feel like work, then move on to the next. It appears to others that you are working really hard. In fact, you are being more efficient at working hard.
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