When you consider the emotional exhaustion, taxing hours, and stressful demands that make up a physician’s work, it comes as no surprise that burnout in medicine is now regarded as a public health crisis.
“We live in an era of accelerating change, and of astonishingly rapid expansion of medical knowledge,” writes Dr. Charles Lockwood, M.D., Dean of USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, in an op-ed published in Contemporary OBGyn. “While this relentless pace of change is generating extraordinary advances in health care, it also breeds burnout.”
Lockwood says he often sees students and young doctors spiral into serious cases of burnout — but according to research, an alternative equation can help to combat its effects. He notes that researchers have found that the doctors who thrive in their careers, and avoid major episodes of burnout and stress, infuse a particular combination of qualities into their work: Novelty, purpose, and most importantly, grit.
“Grit can be defined as passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals,” Lockwood explains. “It requires certain building blocks, the first of which is curiosity to explore a variety of interests before settling on the one most compelling.” These building blocks, which exist in any field, also serve as the premise for psychologist Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.’s research in her New York Times best seller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In her research, Duckworth explores the characteristics of hardworking individuals from middle school teachers to spelling bee finalists, and Lockwood says her takeaway is a vital part of success. “There is a compelling body of qualitative and quantitative data to support her thesis,” he writes. “Grit might just be the key to maintaining the discipline of lifelong learning while avoiding burnout.”
Duckworth’s hypothesis boils down to the idea that long-term perseverance is what ultimately drives our success and happiness, even in changing fields like medicine. “For those in healthcare, like so many other industries, the twenty-first century is like no other,” she tells Thrive. “It may be more difficult to maintain a sense of purpose and confidence… and mastery of ever-changing innovations and insights from medicinal science.” In the face of these changes, Duckworth says that so much of our satisfaction at work stems from the intention we bring. “Passion and perseverance not only help you rise to challenges, but also work to make the entire system more supportive,” she adds.
Lockwood also notes that a feeling of novelty is necessary in the effort to help beat burnout, coupled with a deeper sense of purpose in what you do. “Initial novelty is soon replaced by deep appreciation of the nuances of a given field or discipline,” he notes. While many people — physicians and otherwise — begin their careers with excitement, he points out that the initial spark can fade, so genuine passion for what you do is required in order to continue feeling a sense of purpose, which can sustain you through more difficult periods. “Gritty exemplars exhibit more than interest and practice,” Lockwood urges. “They have purpose.”
So how can we use this information to combat burnout in our own lives? According to Lockwood, it starts at the beginning, as he finds the most successful doctors have wanted to pursue their paths from the start. “Think how hard you worked in your pre-med years,” he writes. “You [first] discovered you might want to be a physician because you loved science and wanted to help your fellow man.” Lockwood believes those who feel an innate sense of purpose from the get-go are the ones who stay impassioned throughout their careers. “It is that higher purpose that builds resilience in the face of adversity and exhaustion,” he adds.
That’s not to say that it’s not still vital to manage your stress, work with your colleagues and managers to better integrate work and life, and try to avoid the kinds of punishing hours that come at the cost of sleep and your well-being. But choosing a career path that feeds your sense of purpose, and making a point of approaching your work life with grit can be major helpers as well.
Above all, Lockwood says true implementation of grit must start at the top — and infusing it into your organization will benefit everyone. “If we practice [grit] with our staff, trainees, and colleagues, we will not only create a culture of excellence, we can combat the insidious ingredients of burnout,” he writes. “If we can practice in such an environment, we will thrive.”
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