Burnout syndrome is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. I burned out early. Right out of fellowship, I no longer wanted to be a doctor. The grueling hours, my grumpy co-workers, and distant patient engagements left me totally exhausted. However over the course of a year, I was able to rediscover my passion for medicine.
Some tactics were deliberate mindful behaviors, some occurred by accident, and some started with a different goal, but eventually helped ease my burnout and anxiety.
Here’s how I did it
1. I got a job that worked with my desired schedule.
This was the first step in overcoming my harrowing burnout. I had planned to move to Detroit after fellowship to be with my boyfriend at the time, however there were several medical systems merging within the Detroit area when I was seeking a job. Eventually, I interviewed with a large community hospital in Saginaw, 100 miles north of Detroit. Because this system was growing, I had the opportunity to be the first critical care physician hired by the Hospital’s medical group. I seized the chance to ask for exactly what I wanted. No nights or 24 hour calls! The hospital happily agreed, and I signed a yearlong contract for 15 12-hour shifts per month with a generous salary, sign on bonus, CME allowance, and student loan repayment benefits.
I took only 1 month off prior to starting my first job, which in retrospect was a big mistake, however I was desperate to start paying off my exorbitant student loan and credit card debit. My sign on bonus was handed over on the first official day of employment. I should have asked for an advance at signing and delayed my start date.
Over the course of 6 months, my 7 days on and 7 days off schedule was amiable to my recovery, and I actually began to enjoy my job again.
2. I invested heavily in my health.
After years of yo-yo weight gain, stress eating, and scarfing in every donut and pizza slice found in the nurse’s lounge, I decided it was time to create a plan to recover my health. I hired a personal trainer, with whom I worked with 3 times a week when I was off work. I also got a gym membership in Saginaw. This was not cheap. My trainer was $55/hour x 3 days = $165 x 2 weeks/month = $330, plus my gym membership of $20/month = $350/month x 12 months = $4200/year. This does not include work out gear, home equipment, and gym membership sign on fees.
My goal was to increase my endurance, energy and strength while avoiding injury. I was a novice to weight lifting and high level cardio circuits, so I wanted a trainer to monitor and manage my health. It was refreshing to have someone else care for my health.
It was refreshing to have someone else care for my health. Best investment I’ve ever made.
Best investment I’ve ever made. I still continue to work out with a personal trainer in California. Even though I reached all my previous health goals, I continue to set new ones and want to maintain consistency with my health. It’s a good thing I continued because I just avoided another burnout scare recently. More on that another time.
3. I set a financial plan.
My biggest goal was to pay off my credit card and 7% rate student loans as fast as possible. I threw my entire sign on bonus on to my credit card in one big fat payment and only bought myself a modest gift in celebration. I felt better instantly. Over the next year, I lived meagerly: not buying extra clothes, jewelry, or furniture. I had a sofa, a bed, and two dressers from Ikea. I bought 5 pants and 6 shirts that I rotated around. This allowed me to make large $5-10k student loan payments to the principle balance monthly.
I was so happy to see my loan amount go down, and surprisingly I still had plenty of money to spend on things I wanted, like travel and healthy groceries. I made no financial investments at this time, aside from the standard 401K amount. I did not find any long or short term investments that would pay me more than my interest rates could keep up with or that would make me feel better about stabilizing my financial future.
After 2 years, all my 7% loans were gone. I still have student loans to pay off, but the 2% interest rate on these allows me the freedom to make other smart investments.
4. I found fun things to do.
I started participating in activities I enjoyed like attending sporting events, concerts, traveling internationally, cooking, and coding websites. Basically all the stuff I didn’t have time for in the last decade. It was nice to find the old me. Focusing on things I found fun helped break up the tension I would feel at work. It gave me the boost I needed.
5. I stopped studying.
This didn’t benefit me long term, but helped tremendously at that time. I completely hated talking about medicine or reading journals. It can feel unnatural since we’re constant learners in our profession. Of course when a patient’s case required further investigation I would hop on pubmed, but I mostly stayed away from learning any new medical information. When I decided to pursue academic medicine I had a lot of catching up to do, but that break was so worth it.
What can you do?
These 5 things were effective for me because I was able to address exactly what was causing me so much stress and anxiety. These may not work for you, but I encourage you to map out what triggers your stress.
The Critical Care Societies Collaborative published a report on burnout syndrome in July 2016, creating a call to action with the #StopICUburnout hashtag. There is not enough research to directly establish the best treatment for burnout, but the paper does state a combination of environmental changes and individual coping methods works best.
Tell me about your wellness plans and how you’ve overcome your own burnout in the comments below! Join the conversation about healthy behaviors you’re engaging in by posting on social media with the hashtag #MINDFULMED for the month of March Mindfulness!