I have been struggling. I have previously been open about my experiences with professional burnout. While I have made significant changes that have helped me over the years, it is a continuous battle with a combination of work and life stresses as contributors. My burnout has not been cured, and I am constantly struggling to manage it.
I am not alone. We need to recognize that many of our colleagues are also struggling and may feel ashamed to openly acknowledge this. My personal story is only a single experience among countless others from health-care workers across all disciplines. What we have all endured over the past two and a half years has challenged us in ways we never previously considered. Our lives before 2020 will never return. We need to embrace (or at least come to terms with) our “new normal.” This is especially true for health-care workers. Burnout was a significant issue prior to the onset of COVID-19 but it has become more critical since 2020.
While we now have effective vaccines and some helpful treatments, the COVID-19 pandemic has created increased stress and anxiety related to the unknown long-term effects of infection and the uncertainty that each new disease wave brings. The dual impact of sick coworkers and people leaving the workforce has created critical shortages of staffing among physicians, technologists, nurses, and other staff members. The constant uncertainty about staffing has compounded the strains on our workforce, causing individuals to be pushed to the limits to provide optimal patient care. This is all in addition to the omnipresent background of national and global issues such as gun violence, political unrest, endangered protections of rights for females and LGBTQ+ communities, climate change and war. All of these issues, in addition to the constant health concerns, can be significant unseen burdens harming our colleagues.
Through my personal journey, I have explored ways to cope with my stress, anxiety, and ongoing struggles. I am still learning and adapting to what works best for me. One of the most helpful things is sharing my experiences. I have done this to help others recognize they are not alone, and to create awareness about these issues to mitigate associated stigma.
In medicine, there is an unsaid perception that those who provide patient care cannot falter. That level of perfectionism expected of health-care workers needs to be abolished. Physicians and other health-care workers are prone to stumbling (like all humans), especially in the current medical and societal climate. We need to acknowledge it is okay to not be okay, it is okay to not be perfect at everything, and it is okay to not be able to do everything. We need to acknowledge everyone has their own challenges (some of which may be invisible to others) and we need to be supportive of each other.
Life has become busy and hectic for most people. Therefore, supporting others or creating space to support oneself may not be prioritized. For me, it is easier to be there for others than myself (which many can relate to). My internal negative dialogue and “inner critic” hold me to a different standard than others and this can lead to negative spirals of self-depreciation, rumination, and guilt. My inner critic is an extrovert so muting this voice can be difficult. I have internal conversations with my critic, imagining my critic is a good friend who needs advice. I have realized I need to learn to take the advice that I can easily give others. Ongoing reflection and compassion for oneself can help break the hold of the aforementioned negative spirals on one’s outlook.
Learning how to take time for myself and give myself the grace and empathy I can easily provide others has been difficult. I have been working on incorporating breathing exercises, meditation, and other mindfulness strategies into my daily routine. This can vary for individuals. For example, meditation is difficult for me to do but long walks, cooking, or spending time talking to friends and colleagues provide easy daily mindfulness times. The ability to disconnect from devices, email, and social media to create space and time to concentrate on oneself, even for a short period of time, can be especially helpful.
I have been working on burnout research and work for years, and the issue is more critical than ever. We all went into health care for different reasons but one common goal has been providing excellent patient care. We have all heard the phrase “You need to take care of yourself before taking care of others.” However, how many of us truly practice this? I ask everyone to reflect on how they are doing this. Is there anything we can be doing better for ourselves? Is there anything we can do better to support our colleagues?
We owe ourselves the same standard of care we provide for our patients. This isn’t self-indulgence. This is allowing ourselves to experience the grace and humanity that we would readily grant to others. We and our patients deserve nothing less.