Take regular vacations. This may seem like an obvious one, but the reality is many employees don’t use all their vacation days. I encourage you to use them. It is crucial to recharge your brain by completely unplugging for a period of time. For many, this will involve leaving town so that you are in a different environment from your usual day to day life. But even if you are enjoying a staycation, do something different. Make sure to do an activity you enjoy, try something new, and unplug from your phone and laptop during your time off.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sheetal DeCaria.
Sheetal DeCaria M.D. is a double board-certified anesthesiologist and pain physician with additional training in integrative and functional medicine. She is the bestselling author of Break the Chronic Pain Cycle: A 90 Day Program to Diagnose and Eliminate the Root Cause of Pain and a media expert for NBC, FOX, CBS, and ABC News. She is the physician and owner of Revitalize Medical Center, a holistic pain clinic in Glenview and Evanston, Illinois.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Absolutely! I was born in India, but my family took a bit of a circuitous journey before immigrating to the United States when I was six years old. My father was a young physician in India, but completed additional training in North Wales before we finally settled down near Detroit, Michigan. My parents were the first members of their families to leave India, so we were lost in more ways than one upon arrival. I still remember our first night in America. Exhausted from our travels, we slept in sleeping bags on the floor of a family friend’s house because we hadn’t yet found a permanent place to call home. We definitely experienced some financial struggles early on. Although my father was a credentialed physician overseas, he had to repeat additional training before he was able to practice medicine in the United States. While he worked extremely long hours, my mom sacrificed everything and stayed home to help support my brother and me through such a tough transition.
Growing up in an immigrant family at that age was a struggle for me at times. At home, our family relied on many of our Indian cultural traditions to give us strength, but with my friends, I often found myself distancing myself from any perceivable difference so I could fit in. It took some time, but by high school I had matured enough to learn to love every aspect of my family’s immigrant journey.
Growing up, we spent summers in India visiting my grandparents and relatives. On our family visits to India, we would pass through the impoverished neighborhoods of Mumbai. I still have vivid memories of the horrifying living conditions so many children from the slums are forced to experience. Knowing that my father came from such humble beginnings left me with not only a feeling of guilt, but also an extreme drive to never waste the opportunity that I was so fortunate to receive. I learned that hard work, dedication, and perseverance can create the opportunity for a better life regardless of your beginnings. I knew then that I wanted to use my blessings to make a positive impact on society.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Despite the fact that I ultimately chose the same medical profession as my father, it was actually my mother who inspired me the most to pursue my career path. To be fair, I learned so much from my father and still try to emulate him in my practice today. He was an incredibly kind and compassionate physician, with an unparalleled enthusiasm and work ethic. His patients admired him for his empathy and the genuine interest he had in seeing their pain improve.
However, I still think back to a conversation I had with my mother when I was ten years old. She confided in me then that she had also wanted to become a physician, but it was strongly discouraged by her family because they thought a career in medicine was no place for a woman. I remember feeling so sorry for her when she told me that story. There is no doubt in my mind that she would have been an incredible physician if given the opportunity. She is brilliant, clever, attentive, and selfless. Without her sacrifices, I would not be who I am today. So when I chose to pursue a career in medicine, I did it with her in mind as well.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I would love to! I did my residency at University of Chicago, and in the first month of residency students are paired with a tutor. My tutor was Dr. Andranik Ovassapian. He was a living legend in the field of anesthesia — an experienced airway guru who had invented a breathing device that is still widely used today. I remember hearing rumors that he was a bit intimidating due to the high expectations he had for his trainees. I remember being so nervous that I wouldn’t do well, so I prepared as much as I could in advance for each day. At the end of my tutoring period, I was shocked when he took the time to write an email to the chairman of the department and my program director telling them that I did an incredible job with a very difficult case. He told them I would make a great anesthesiologist one day. I was so excited that I called my parents right away. Unfortunately, Dr. Ovassapian passed away during my training, but the lessons he taught me and all his trainees will carry on with us always.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I was in medical school, my strategy to combat nervousness when presenting on rounds was to always be the most prepared. I would show up early, get all my notes done in advance, and practice my presentations repeatedly until I had them down pat. One morning, I began my presentation in front of several members of the medical staff, including my supervising attending physician. Presenting on rounds can be an intimidating experience, but I confidently began reading from my index cards that I meticulously prepared for my very sick patient. “This patient is a sixty-four year old female with a complex medical history who presented to the hospital yesterday with pneumonia.” Before I could get the next sentence out, my supervising physician immediately interjected and blurted out “Wow, that patient is sixty-four? She looks like she could still be in college!” The rest of the team tried to hold back their laughter unsuccessfully. It turns out that despite all of my preparation, I lost track of which room we were standing in front of and began my presentation outside of the wrong patient room! Indeed, the patient on the other side of the door was an otherwise healthy nineteen year-old female who presented with appendicitis. And yes, she was still in college! It was an incredibly embarrassing experience at the time, but still taught me an important lesson that I will never forget: No matter how much you prepare for the most complex of situations, don’t forget the basics. Needless to say, I didn’t make that mistake again!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi.
I heard this quote for the first time in college , and I remember it resonating with me then as I began my pre-medicine curriculum. Now, fourteen years after finishing medical school, I am the sole proprietor of a new pain medicine practice, and I still think back to this quote often. Between learning about the business side of practice management and keeping up with the constant evolution of medicine, the learning never stops. But I still set boundaries with my work and have learned to treasure all the little simple moments with my family. In fact, sometimes when I sit down to help my ten-year-old with her math homework, while juggling my toddler in my lap, I get the best of both worlds. Not only do I get to spend quality time with my daughters, but I get to learn a new approach to long division! I never realized how challenging fourth grade math could be!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am trying to revolutionize how chronic pain is treated. What I have found is that practitioners tend to be very one-sided: either all for conventional medicine or alternative/complementary medicine. Even those who claim to be holistic often tend to have bias towards one discipline over another. I strive to practice truly integrative medicine with the patients in my clinic — blending the best of both Eastern and Western philosophies. Writing my book was the first step in letting the world know about my unique approach to managing pain. In the past few months, I have created free online courses (one specifically on beating burnout) and launched a companion course to go along with my book.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Resilience. I don’t think anyone becomes a physician without resilience. Like other physicians, I have missed a lot of weddings, birthdays, funerals, and family celebrations due to the time constraints of my training. I have had to show up to work the next day after having heart-wrenching conversations with a patient’s family members after their loved one passed away. I had to overcome an incredible amount of guilt struggling to balance parenthood with my own career aspirations. Although quitting has crossed my mind countless times for different reasons over the years, I haven’t given up. I now think that despite the challenges of the medical field, I am grateful that I have one of the most fulfilling careers out there.
- Leadership. Although I have had leadership roles in various forms throughout my career, I have recently gone “all-in” for the first time by opening my own practice. It took my own personal experiences with chronic pain to realize that the only way I could optimize a patient’s care was to break free from the traditional practice model and incorporate integrative and functional medicine into my conventional medical background. I feel like I am now a leader in the field as my role as a physician has also evolved to include entrepreneur, author, educator, and small business owner.
- Empathy. I think empathy has really helped me when it comes to treating patients with chronic pain. I tend to put myself in the shoes of my patients. When they tell me their story, I always imagine what their life is like, and it can be very heart-wrenching. Many have faced terrible tragedies — deaths of children, victims of abuse, lots of trauma. I have fought back tears sometimes as I listen to these stories and often find myself thinking about their lives long after their visits are done.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
Not only have I treated patients suffering from burnout, but I have experienced it myself. There were countless times throughout my medical training when I felt I had lost my passion for medicine and wanted to quit. I also realized that many of my colleagues were experiencing the same thing. I grew really interested in the topic of burnout after learning that physicians have the profession with the highest suicide rate, and that, amongst physicians, anesthesiologists are at particularly high risk.
After I managed to overcome burnout and reignite my passion for my job, I made it my mission to teach others to do the same. Another population I have seen a great deal of burnout in are working moms who struggle to balance work and their childcare responsibilities. Earlier this year, I appeared on ABC, FOX, and CBS news discussing tips to overcome parental burnout.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
Burnout is a term to describe a specific type of work-related stress. Those with burnout experience emotional and physical exhaustion, lack of fulfillment, and cynicism. In fact, the WHO recognizes burnout, not as a medical condition, but rather an occupational phenomenon. It is even included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a job-related phenomenon.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
To me, the opposite of someone who is experiencing burnout is someone who is energized, dedicated, and fulfilled with their career.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
One of the largest groups that illustrate the prevalence and negative impact of burnout is the medical profession. Medical training has historically been notorious for promoting an attitude of “soldiering on” and keeping complaints to yourself. It is no surprise that the healthcare environment, with its long hours, constant pressure to perform at a peak level, stressful work, and increasing administrative demands has led to an incredibly high level of burnout. In fact, some studies show as high as forty to fifty percent of physicians are burned out. This impacts not just the doctor’s health and the lives of their family members, but the general public as well. Burned out physicians are more likely to quit medicine, reducing patient access to care. Many doctors have left medicine due to burnout. And for those that continue to work, the depersonalization they experience may lead to less empathy with their patients. In the worst case scenario, it can lead to physician suicide. Doctors die by suicide at twice the rate of the rest of the population. We need doctors to take care of us, and each of us wants our doctor to be happy and satisfied with their job. Luckily, physician burnout and wellness has been a hot topic for a few years now and fortunately hospitals, medical schools, and training programs are doing their best to address wellness and burnout. We are far from resolving the issues, but at least I believe we are on the right path.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
I think the main causes of burnout are highly demanding jobs, time pressures, balancing family responsibilities, limited time off of work, and lack of control over your schedule.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- Take regular vacations. This may seem like an obvious one, but the reality is many employees don’t use all their vacation days. I encourage you to use them. It is crucial to recharge your brain by completely unplugging for a period of time. For many, this will involve leaving town so that you are in a different environment from your usual day to day life. But even if you are enjoying a staycation, do something different. Make sure to do an activity you enjoy, try something new, and unplug from your phone and laptop during your time off.
- Schedule self-care time each day to decompress. I really can’t emphasize this one enough. Exercise is key for your mental health, along with prioritizing sleep. I highly recommend exercises such as yoga and Tai Chi because they also incorporate a mind-body aspect,- utilizing deep breathing along with purposeful movements.
- Set boundaries with work. To be honest, this one is a hard one for me. Even so it is important to set a time each day that you are no longer working. If your boss is constantly sending you emails or expecting you to be available during your off-hours, you should politely remind them that you are not working during those hours.
- Speak up and ask for help. Whether it is asking your spouse to pitch in with childcare or household duties, asking your boss for an extension on a work deadline, or seeking professional help from a coach or therapist. Remember that burnout is an issue with the workplace, not you. You should not tackle it alone.
- Practice kindness and volunteer. Volunteering is an incredible way to light up the positive emotional centers in your brain and also a way to re-ignite your purpose. Find a local organization to volunteer with or do something as simple as lending a helping hand to an elderly neighbor. Simple acts of kindness can go a long way in changing your outlook and helping you find your purpose.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
The first thing is to talk to them and listen with a nonjudgmental ear. Sometimes it’s best to not say anything at all, but to simply listen and encourage them to open up to you. The biggest step is for one to recognize they are suffering from burnout, and then take the necessary steps to address it.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
First and foremost, the employer needs to promote a nontoxic work environment. They need to pay attention to the well-being of their employees and the atmosphere of the workplace. I think people want and deserve honesty and transparency from the top down. I think team-building should be emphasized, as well as ample support for those caring for children or elderly parents. Employers need to be understanding of employees with childcare challenges and if possible, be flexible with work from home opportunities on the days an employee has childcare challenges. Employers should regularly survey their employees anonymously to find out what workplace issues they are having. I also think employers should honor an employee’s time off. They should not be contacting them in the evening or weekends if those are not hours they are working. There should also be a support system in place for overworked staff.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
I think employers need to be proactive not reactive when it comes to mental wellness. The workplace needs to encourage employees to provide feedback on their workplace woes, and these should be addressed one by one. The employee should feel that their voice is being heard.
Additionally, the employer should have an appointed individual who can regularly check on employees’ well-being and create a system where employees can anonymously submit complaints. There shouldn’t be any fear of losing their job if an employee is truthful.
One thing that cannot be overlooked is the benefit of having happy employees. With happy employees, you are likely to have better retention rate, which means you don’t have to keep recruiting and re-training new employees. You may also find yourself holding on to the best employees, as sometimes very successful and capable employees will seek employment elsewhere if they are unhappy. Addressing the mental wellness of employees serves not only the employees but the employer as well.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
Not asking for help. Maybe that means asking for additional help if you feel overworked or overwhelmed, or asking your boss to extend a deadline. I think those who don’t ask for help are going to struggle with reversing burnout. As I said earlier, burnout is not a medical condition that someone has. It is a workplace issue. So unless you attempt to fix the work environment, the burnout won’t go away. Another mistake is not setting clear enough boundaries with your work. In this digital era, we are constantly connected. It is important to detach from your devices if you find yourself constantly checking your work email from home. For example, if you are trying to do a yoga session for your mental health, but checking your email in between, you are losing all benefits of that yoga session.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Thank you. This is a simple idea but an incredibly powerful one. Treat others like you would want to be treated. Take a moment — before you pass judgement — to imagine what the other person’s life is like. Right now there is so much division and hatred around us. When I see my children play with other kids, I see how beautiful childhood is. They don’t judge one another or see skin color or their differences. They welcome each other with open arms. If we could just work together as a society I think we could achieve so much more happiness as a whole.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
This is a tough one! So many names come to mind, but I would be honored to have the opportunity to meet Mindy Kaling. To be honest, I don’t watch a lot of TV or read a lot of non-medical books, but I have enjoyed all of Mindy’s TV shows and books. It’s almost like she wrote them just for me! Just kidding. But as a fellow Southeast Asian female and mom, I would love to sit down with her and chat about life. I would also love to thank her for providing me comic relief at my peak burnout stages!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I can be found on Instagram and Facebook. My handle is @drdecaria. My business website is www.revitalizemedcenter.com.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!