Combat Burnout and Reclaim Your Calling

New article I complied for Christian Medical and Dental Association to be published Fall 2016. I'll put the link up to the direct publication when available. -Be Well, My Friend!- Dr Errin

I quit medicine. I was only five months out of residency and I was leaving medicine. I was finally a full-fledged physician with the big paycheck but absolutely no fulfillment. Not only did I leave the office night after night completely frustrated, hopeless and exhausted, I showed up each morning in the same state, if not slightly worse. The personal accomplishment of healing—gone. The enthusiasm of service—gone. The love of humankind—gone.

I was drained and running on empty. I developed physical symptoms of headaches, palpitations and anxiety. But, honestly, the scariest part was I quit caring. It just became about ending the day, finishing one more chart, seeing one more patient now so at least it was one less tomorrow. No amount of incentives was going to bring me back.

I had dedicated my heart, my soul and several years of my life to this honorable profession. I had ever missed my children’s first words because I was at work. It was never supposed to “just be” my job. It was supposed to be my calling, and it had betrayed me.

Does my story sound familiar to you? If you haven’t experienced burnout yourself, chances are pretty high you know a colleague, friend or family member who is going through it right now.

As Christians in healthcare, we feel tremendous responsibility toward fulfilling our God-given calling of healing. We are determined to complete our work, no matter the cost at times. But somewhere in the hustle and bustle, we are letting our servants’ hearts and best of intentions become our greatest downfall. Our self-care is forgotten in the effort to take care of “just one more.” We get busy, tired and stressed, and then we let our love of healing and joy of service become depleted by unending demands. Our cup runs dry. The light of our life literally burns out.

Burnout is a buzzword in the healthcare world because our community is struggling. An increasing number of healthcare professionals are professionally, personally and spiritually trying to survive against daily demands while experiencing chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, career and life dissatisfaction brought on by prolonged stress mixed with overworking.

Sleepless nights, increased requirements, new stresses, full schedules and practically never-ending 24-hour patient access have left many totally incapacitated and ready to give up. Add on more clinical issues (like larger patient panels, electronic medical records and patient satisfaction scores) along with family responsibilities, financial constraints and other obligations, it’s no wonder burnout is an epidemic sweeping through healthcare.

Meager attempts are being made to “reduce dissatisfaction” or provide “a stress reduction approach.” Institutions and hospital systems are scrambling to find a solution and trying resilience or wellness workshops, employer-provided counseling, stress management training, or financial incentive programs.  Again, reducing stress is treating the symptom, like lowering hypertensive emergency to a less critical level. Lower stress takes a situation from terrible to just bad, from critical to manageable. But it’s not cured.

To stop the exit of doctors, money is being thrown about like gauze piled on a gaping wound. However, just as gauze will not return blood back into circulation, I agrue that money will never increase or return fulfillment. Most of us did not enter into this career for the money. No amount of dollar signs can be placed on the art of healing and human life. So treating the burned-out physician with more money, breathing exercises to reduce stress or required attendance at another in-service is missing the mark and degrading our art to a paycheck makes it feel cheap.

So, some physicians leave. They amputate themselves from the situation, cutting their losses. By removing the gangrenous foot, the rest of the body is spared. However, there is a net overall effect: loss to themselves, their current patients and any future patients.

Others see no end, resorting to suicide. An estimated 400 U.S. doctors kill themselves every year, and the numbers are climbing even among medical students who have yet to start careers. And I understand why. During my “dark days,” an older colleague said, “We would hope to keep you, Dr. Weisman, for the length of your long 30+ year career.” My thoughts, “30 years of this hell? How am I supposed to suffer through!?!” For a brief moment, death seemed like the only way out.

Perhaps it's a time to approach burnout on an individual basis allowing for the healthcare professional battling burnout to take an extremely personal approach to address the exact issues pertaining to them. For me, I did what any good physician would do and started searching for answers because, at my core, I knew my career wasn’t over. I never have nor never will be a quitter. In my searching, I found others just like me and through continued exploration, I discovered help through professional coaching.

Coaching is a partnership that focuses on developing specific, meaningful changes in the life of the person being coached. In essence, coaching is a process that helps individuals get from where they are to where they want to be. Coaches in CMDA’s Life & Leadership Coaching program help healthcare professionals focus on the future, changes they wish to make, goals they want to accomplish and the specific ways to achieve those results. To do this, they use powerful questions like those below to generate solutions.

  • Where in my current circumstances am I living out my beliefs or purpose? Where am I not?

  • In what ways has my work life slowly encroached into areas I hold sacred?

  • How do I know if I am living in the middle of God’s will, dwelling in His power, abiding in His presence? Am I there now? What are some steps I can take to achieve this?

  • Where might God be calling me to reclaim my priorities? What boundaries have I let become compromised and slip that need to be reinstated?

  • What changes am I willing to make to realign my current life with one that fulfills my purpose?

If you are experiencing something similar, let me share a few truths to encourage and support you.

  • Only the Great Physician can be on-call 24 hours every day.

  • Get back to the basics. Love, trust and abide in God first, then love others (Matthew 22:37-40).

  • Remember that God sometimes gives us exactly what we want just to show us it’s not at all what we need (Philippians 4:11).

  • We were never created to live defeated, depressed, condemned, guilty, stressed or unworthy. We were made with a purpose to be victorious through Christ (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 12:10)

  • Each of us has a calling, but not all of us have a job that is our calling (Psalms 143:8).

  • Don’t get busy making a living and forget to make a life (Proverbs 16:3).

  • You can’t effectively serve if you have nothing left to give (Isaiah 41:13).

  • Do not lose heart if you are experiencing hopelessness, brokenness, feelings of emptiness or inadequacy. God is with you (Matthew 11:28-30).

  • God can use even the smallest amount of faith (Matthew 17:20).

Through coaching, I refocused, redefined and clarified. My life is not perfect now, but it’s certainly a long way from what it was. It’s a daily process to remain balanced and focused on my true purpose. By the grace of God, working with a professional coach and intentionally changing my work life, I’m still practicing medicine, but I’m practicing much differently. I lived through burnout, and I’m better.

If any of this rang true with you, I encourage you to take an introspective look by asking yourself some clarifying questions. Then, determine what you can do to help yourself. Maybe you can seek out help by reconnecting with your local church or CMDA group. Perhaps it’s time you participate in a healthcare mission trip or local service project. Consider taking some days off or changing your current schedule. Maybe just simply turning off your cell for a few silent minutes. Whatever you believe can help, try it.

You do not have to remain stuck; burnout does not have to define you. And remember, you are not alone. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (ESV). Zephaniah 3:17 tells us God is always in our midst, He is the mighty one who will save us. He is near, ready to strengthen you, help you and hold you up with his righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10. So don’t give up. Don’t let burnout steal your passion and your joy. Trust in Him, and start taking steps to combat the burnout and rediscover your calling to serve Christ in healthcare.