Burnout is eating away at health care providers across the United States. I was recently feeling like a case study. But I found my way back by thinking deeply about why my energy had faded and by taking time to care for my own health.
When I started my medical practice, my patients exhilarated me. I drew energy from engaging them, sharing their emotions as they came to understand their condition, and guiding them from diagnosis through treatment. But I realized that was starting to change, and I needed to find out why.
I knew that the long hours and demands of being a physician and surgeon, along with red tape and regulations, were adding stress and anxiety. The administrative burdens of going it alone in a small practice and the nightmare of tracking electronic records made me feel as if I was no longer in control. With less time available for each patient, the inspiring relationships with them that had long energized my medical career began to collapse. And that eventually affected my personal life.
The question I ask is, “How are we going to heal others if we can’t heal ourselves?”
As physicians, we spend so much of our emotional energy on our patients — it’s the core of who we are. But we also need to care for ourselves and support our families and our colleagues while still upholding our oath to put patients’ needs first.
It’s a constant, daily struggle — and also a journey of falling back in love with medicine, as I said during a TEDx talk I gave in London.
Here are five strategies that I’ve been using to find my way back.
- Figure out where your passions lie. This was step one for me. Remember what drew you to your field and fight to bring that passion back. For me, this has involved a Tesla, my close friend and medical partner, Sijo Parekattil, and yearly a road trip we call Drive 4 Men’s Health. It’s a 10-day, 6,000-mile public engagement tour to encourage men to eat better, get active, and engage in preventive medical screenings. From the engagement with crowds to the constant social media posts, this experience charges me up and reminds me how devoted I am to improving men’s health. Bring the things you love back into your profession.
- Connect with other physicians. I could not have restored my faith in medicine without help from my medical partner. Doctors get busy — particularly in individual practice. We end up so focused on ourselves that we fail to look out for each other. Physicians need to communicate and engage with each other if we are ever to see change. Even in burnout, you aren’t alone. Engage your friends and colleagues into the conversation.
- Take care of yourself and your body. Physical fitness is a powerful driver of mental fitness. If one falters, it often drags down the other. Take time for exercise, even if it means fewer hours in the office. The act of exercise reduces stress, solo workouts can give your mind and mood a break, and as you improve physically you’ll be better enabled to handle the stresses of the job.
- Eat well. Choosing a healthy diet is obvious, but it’s also critically important. Physicians constantly tell their patients to follow a healthy diet (or they should) because it works. As burnout emerges, stress eating or picking up bad dietary habits will only accelerate the breakdown. Follow the well-worn mantra: Eat well to feel well.
- Get enough sleep. Three weeks ago, thinking I had vertigo, I went to see my own physician. He told me it was just stress and lack of sleep. I followed his prescription — get more sleep — and I’m a new man. People, especially doctors, tend to think sleep is optional. It isn’t.
There are many more rules than mine. Top leaders at the Mayo Clinic, for example, recently published nine organizational strategies “to promote physician engagement.” But at their heart, all of these strategies aim to rejuvenate physicians or, even better, to prevent burnout before it happens.
Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, is a urologic surgeon specializing in chronic testicular pain and infertility and co-director of the PUR Clinic at South Lake Hospital in Clermont, Fla., in affiliation with Orlando Health.