How I Avoid Burnout When Caring For Others

Lessons I’ve learned from advising my patients

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I’m a physiotherapist specialising in spinal pain and wellbeing. This means that my day is filled up with back to back patient consultations (pun absolutely intended), hydrotherapy sessions, teaching Pilates, not to mention husband, swim club and cat duties. On a daily basis it’s very easy to forget that my wellbeing is somewhere in there too. 

Physiotherapists in the clinical world are generally seen as energy fountains, health gurus, and exercise maniacs, for who it all comes naturally and easily. How can this nice job of encouraging people all day and exercising with them be stressful or wear you down?

Sadly, burnout in healthcare is rife. Just 5 years ago I was full on, hospital-stay-several-weeks-on-the-sofa burned out. My balance had been lost. I was spending all day teaching others how to prioritise their own health and had completely lost track of mine. Cue a good sit down and chat with myself about wellbeing.

What was I telling my patients and why wasn’t I doing it?

I needed a good dose of my own medicine. I started to reflect on the sessions I had with my patients and let them teach me to manage burnout to keep enjoying the profession that I love.

Lesson No. 1: Advise yourself as you would others- with kindness

I often ask my patients how they would support a colleague or friend who has a long-term condition, back pain or is experiencing a personal struggle. People are brilliant at helping others and will put great effort into shaping a working week, diary or caseload, to allow someone else the time that they need. I needed to rejig my work week to give more time for myself and divide difficult days. Strategy A was formed. Working with people who have pain is tough but rewarding, I need my cup to be full in order to give my best. This is justification enough for requesting flexible working, caseload prioritisation and delegation of non-clinical tasks. Daunting though it sounds, in reality it was easy. 

Lesson No. 2: Understand that you are valued and create a routine that honours your time

This is an interesting and effective point. Appreciating our own value and what we bring to a role empowers us to be more careful about how we use our time. The hours I give to my work are valuable but are also valuable to me. I decided that the time I have for myself is JUST AS IMPORTANT as the time I give my patients. Now it is it diarised and highlighted in pastel lilac!

I now work a later start and later finish, I LOVE mornings. They are my favourite time of day, so I claimed them back. This morning I am writing. Yesterday morning was Yoga, tomorrow is a run on the seafront. I look forward to starting my day how I like, with activity and creativity and it’s in the diary with as much importance as a clinical meeting.

Lesson No. 3: Enlist the support of others

Connecting with others enhances our wellbeing and happiness. I am always encouraging my patients to tell their friends and family that they are aiming for more balance and enlist their help in doing so. I have a great friend and colleague who is always on hand to tell me when my diary is getting crazy, I’ve taken too much on, or I just plain need to say no. Her stern face is a force to be reckoned with and it keeps me in check. Demands on our time can feel like obligations, but the truth is the grass will still grow if you take an hour to read, stretch, nap when you need it. 

Family and loved ones need to be in on the plan too. I now communicate what my week and my mornings look like to my husband so that he knows the ‘do not disturb’ timetable and is great at honouring it. I am learning to ignore chores in my ‘me time’ and actually, the laundry can wait until later!

Lesson No. 4: Practice and course correct regularly

Patients often worry that if their balance is lost and pain becomes unmanageable again, they have failed. I often worry that I am not achieving all the goals that I have set myself, and the negative chatter monkey starts jabbering. I return to the question; what do I tell my patients? Work/life balance is NOT EASY. It takes practice, it ebbs and flows depending on what life throws at us. Return to Lesson Number 1. How would I support someone and respond with kindness to get back on track – easy.

I am now much more equipped to firstly understand the signs of my own burnout – anxiety, fatigue, a feeling that I am not an effective practitioner. And secondly respond to those feelings and start to look for where the balance has been lost and create action to restore it!

Reflecting on the lessons I teach my patients has made me a better, more empathetic and connected physiotherapist. I can be that positive energy fountain as long as I put the work in to honour my wellbeing and regularly course correct, and I mean regularly. It’s a daily activity – highlighted, of course, in lilac! 

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