It’s hard to know when you are burning out – most physicians have no idea they are in the midst of it. Once you’re burnt out, there is no mistaking it. But burnout recovery isn’t addressed enough, and it’s a personal journey of mine.
I am not about to tell anyone here how to recover from burnout – only how I managed my own recovery.
I have to add that yoga and tea and gong baths weren’t the solutions.
Burnout isn’t permanent, but like dementia and diabetes, it’s a chronic condition you can manage. It’s too easy to fall back into the midst of the condition.
Early diagnosis is the key. I had no idea in 2012 that I was rounding the corner on burnout. I loved my work but had a harder and harder time recovering from difficult work situations.
By 2014 I was at the peak of my urgent care career and made over $400k at Kaiser. But I was exhausted and saw the writing on the wall.
Burnout came in 2016, and in 2023, 7 years later, I am working in the urgent care and doing telemedicine without the same feelings as before.
My Barometer for Burnout Recovery
I know that I am no longer burnt out or dealing with burnout if:
- no anxiety before a shift
- no emotional fatigue after a shift
- able to manage complex/difficult patients
- not obsessing over potentially bad future outcomes
I posted this list on Reddit, and I can tell you that you and I aren’t alone in dealing with our burnout. Other than one jaded comment, many shared their journey and struggles.
Recovering from Burnout
I don’t have a recipe for recovery, but time away from practicing medicine and changing work settings seems to help.
The backbone of it is redefining the relationship I had with medicine. If it was just a way to earn a paycheck, I don’t think I could have made it to the other end.
Burnout is definitely something internal and personal. There isn’t much use blaming the healthcare system or employers or patients. Therefore, recovering from burnout may also need to be internal.
Going Back to Work
I am unsure if I can ever hold down a full-time medical job. Right now, it feels like I could. But the chance of relapse is too high.
Working 20 hours a week in the urgent care seems doable and is the healing part of my burnout recovery journey.
I don’t dread the workday the day before. I even look forward to it because it will be a healthy challenge and a changeup in my routine.
If I don’t sleep enough or have too much on my mind it’s easy to relapse into worrisome thoughts. And it’s a spiral downward from there.
Leaving a shift will be physically exhausting, especially now at 45 years old. I’m okay with that. I now hold more space for myself after work and ensure a good setting to come home to.
I no longer feel emotional exhaustion except when I push myself unnecessarily. For example, when I try to rush from one patient to the next and hold too many facts in my brain before putting them into the chart.
Managing Difficult Patients
I don’t want to use the word difficult because that makes me think it’s me against the patient.
But, inevitably, there are personality clashes that come up. And sometimes, some interactions don’t go the way I wanted them to.
Now, I see them as just interactions. I have less judgment toward them and don’t rush to label the patient as difficult or problematic.
Fear of Bad Outcomes
Bad outcomes are inevitable and often a systems issue. No doubt, I will make mistakes, leading to suffering.
I cannot control the expectations others have of me. But I don’t hold myself to unrealistic standards.
I will show up to work alert and present. I will give every patient as much attention and care as possible that day. That’s my promise.
Dealing with Setbacks or Adversity
Some days I fear a lawsuit or another medical board investigation. These are far less common, and often it’s because I’m writing some content about them.
I likely will get sued one day. There will be patient complaints. I might even have another run-in with a state medical board investigator.
But I think no matter what happens, I’ll be okay, and everyone will be okay.
I used to believe that if I practiced really defensive medicine and documented the shit out of every chart, I would protect myself. Perhaps this burnt me out more than anything.
Now, I don’t believe that my actions determine the future as much as I once believed. And this has been the greatest tool in recovering from burnout.