Physician Burnout: The Silent Epidemic

We live in a world that is advancing faster and faster each day. We wake up starting our days with not enough sleep, and it’s off to the races to complete our to-do list with not enough time to cram it all in. We rush to get ready, rush to work, rush through our work, […]

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We live in a world that is advancing faster and faster each day. We wake up starting our days with not enough sleep, and it’s off to the races to complete our to-do list with not enough time to cram it all in. We rush to get ready, rush to work, rush through our work, and rush to get home for just a fraction of a moment to decompress from the stress of the day. That’s not to mention what’s additionally awaiting us on the other side of our front doors. On top of our busy jobs, we have families to care for and tend to. It’s often a struggle to keep your head above water before the next wave comes crashing down. And you do this day in and day out, to repeat the cycle the next day. This daily process turns into weeks, which turn into months, which turn into years. This inevitably becomes your life. 

In healthcare, work is constant from the time you hit the door to when you close it. When you walk into your unit, you can almost sense how your day will go and see the mixed emotions of tension and relief on the doctors’ faces on your opposite shift when they see you. Phones are ringing, people everywhere, papers and supplies awry. Once you can get yourself going, it’s on to one thing and then another with no downtime in between; or you’re downright multi-tasking numerous things simultaneously throughout your day. You used to think it was just an occasional rough day every once in a while, but now it seems to happen more often than not, and days of a steadier pace come few and far between. You barely have time to make a quick break to the bathroom, let alone sit quietly for even ten minutes to eat a meal. 

The pressure to do it all is mounting, and it’s beginning to feel like too much if it doesn’t already. As a doctor, you’re a jack of all trades, ranging from advocate, caretaker, and consoler to educator, challenger, and reality checker. You’re on the front lines in the war against illness, disease, and death. It’s an excellent standard you are held to, and your extraordinary duties become bombarded by an immensity of documentation, staffing shortages, and a constantly changing healthcare system. The meticulous adherence to massive amounts of information kept rigorously at the forefront of our brains is enough to make anyone feel even just a little off-kilter. The required time to mentally process that workflow is an immediate demand, and the necessary decision-making skills are even more instantaneous. We’re time-compressed and stressed in healthcare and transitioned from human beings to human doings. 

You have lost your balance, your center, your grounding. This is happening on an individual as well as a collective scale. Because of this imbalance, you’re tired, drained, and burnt out, and although you often have the know-how of what to do to fix it, the action part is incomplete because you feel so often depleted of any reserve to do so. It feels easier to cope through convenience than to create change, particularly a transformational one. Doctors firmly hold value in self-care in health care. We preach and teach but struggle with it ourselves due to the exhaustion experienced through our work. This is where we get stuck. This is because time constraints lead us to a continuous and constant state of doing with no space for being. 

There’s a universal law of order of knowing, being, and doing, which is a big part of why we become impaired – the component of our being is robbed amidst the daily grind of chaos. When you know who you are but skip the expression of it, you go straight from thinking into doing with no space to allow for your presence. Your presence is a vital component of who you are and often gets overlooked amidst the confines of the role as a doctor. Caring for others seems to become a newly defined role of what you’re doing, not who you are being. The essence of caring for others began with your calling to be of service. We now live in a time where caring for others is directed in such a specific manner that it feels like there’s little room for your being to emerge. 

As a doctor, you long for days off just to be met with responsibilities at home that you could not get done due to your workdays. So you get to the point where you begin to doubt that the cycle will ever end or that you’ll get that well-needed break. And when you don’t, you break. So your health goes out the window. You get sick more efficiently and have more difficulty recovering from simple things, and keep holding out for it to get better. You skimp on sleep, thinking four to six hours will suffice. You become accustomed to regularly consuming caffeine to get you through the day. You inevitably build a tolerance and require more to kick you in gear. You come home and binge on food, Netflix, or a bit of wine to unwind at the end of the day because “you deserve it” after all your hard work. Then, by the time you go to bed, you feel bad for doing it because you know you have a million other things that need to get done that didn’t, and so you pile it onto the list for the next day. You wake up tired and groggy, and then the need for caffeine arises again to get you through the day. And so, the cycle continues. 

This is the nature of burnout. You drag yourself through the exhaustion and feel defeated, and you ineffectively cope and lose hope and motivation to make a change. Anhedonia sets in, and you wonder if you’re ever going to have legitimate happiness in your life again. Sure, you get glimpses of joy now and again. It’s astoundingly comforting and familiar, but then you pump the breaks. Back to life. Back to reality. 

Your outlook fluctuates between one of desolation and how you think you’re going to get it together and finally have the dream life you so desperately desire. Then, you make half attempts at it, all while wondering why. Why, if you know better, aren’t you doing better? Why is it so hard? When will it change? You tell yourself, “Tomorrow,” but tomorrow never comes. 

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