When I read the article from Diane Shannon, “Why I Left Medicine: A Burnt-Out Doctor’s Decision to Quit” in CommonHealth, my first thought was, “Oh, no. I didn’t get to her in time.
Diane Shannon’s story is raw and real and I honor the courage it took to share it. And I know in my gut there are many, many more physicians—both men and women— like Diane Shannon out there.
What can we do to alleviate the overpowering stress and emotional fatigue that surround medical careers?
It’s my hope that this post provides some answers.
There’s a myth out there that says doctors are supposed to be stronger than the mere mortal we treat.
In fact, we’re supposed to be super humans, and not only leap tall buildings in a single bound, but overcome obstacles that would make “normal people” pale.
But, the truth is, we all know better. We know that underneath our impenetrable exteriors lies a human of flesh and bones, like everyone else.
What do we do when our human bodies get exhausted and overrun by stress?
What happens when the doctor becomes the patient?
Often, doctors live in a state of denial about our own frailties:
- We ignore breast discharge that may be life threatening.
- We talk ourselves out of vertigo until the room spins and we can’t walk, let alone drive.
- We push forward without proper rest or nutrition, ignoring our bodies’ needs for sleep, food, and fluids, even bathroom breaks!
Why do we think ignoring the signs of our human-ness is a good thing?
If our patients behaved this way, we would fuss at them, big time. We would ask if they had lost their minds. We would say, hey! Stop it already.
Instead, doctors ignore common sense. We ignore medical sense. We just don’t make any sense.
Because in our minds, the show has to go on. People need us. We are “better than that” – – huh?
You know when enough is enough.
You know that pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion is no good for your patients or yourself.
I know that carving out space for yourself isn’t easy, especially when we are immersed in a culture where acknowledging our human-ness can be seen as weakness.
The key is taking slow, consistent steps. Below are 5 small lessons that you can build on to stop the crushing weight of overwhelm from taking over your career, your body, and your life:
- Admit you are only human. Women, in particular, are frequently pressured to “just say yes!” when it comes to extra duties at work and at home, especially in a medical environment. Nurses offer to stay late, physicians stay late to let a physician who is also a mother leave early to take her child to soccer practice. Administration needs to hear and understand that physicians need more flexibility in their schedules. On top of that, the doctor needs to ASK for it.
- Schedule time off. And keep it. The number of hours medical students are trained was cut back because of overload. How did it become okay to resume the excessive hours when the physician is out in the trenches and having to take 100 percent of the responsibility?
- When you have time off, make it count for YOU. Don’t use your vacation time to clean the attic or paint the dining room. Time off is for bonding with your spouse, or taking a painting class, or planting a garden. Time off is when you take time to build yourself back up.
- Reach out. Seek support and don’t be embarrassed by it. The truth is, all doctors struggle with these issues. None of us believe in superhuman myth, anyway. If you are feeling on the brink, confide in a peer and discuss solutions. Find a friend, a coach, a spiritual guide you trust and be open, transparent and authentic about what’s going on. It’s impossible to remember why you went into medicine in the first place if you can’t find the strength to get out of bed in the morning.
- If a peer reaches out to rescue you, reach your hand right back! Don’t be hesitant or slow to accept help and support from a friend or colleague. Remember, the best way to help others is to first help ourselves. Admit you are not 100 percent in the game, and seek out the solutions you need to get you back on track.
There is no need to suffer alone.
If you, or someone you know, need a little medical mojo, I invite you to get a FREE copy of 5 Simple Steps to Put The Magic Back in Your Medical Practice. You can find it right here at the top of this page in the sidebar to the right. And, just as importantly, you can join the conversation below.