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Finding Energy In Burnout

May 18, 2023

After fellowship training in hematology and medical oncology, I joined a private group practice. As I decided “I have made it”, I went to work with much enthusiasm. After all, I was finally able to serve and help patients in real life (not that I was not taking care of patients while in training, but as an attending, you were it. You had the final say).

As my patient load was building up gradually, I was leaving work later and later. It came to the point that I was going home without completing that day’s work because I did not want to miss seeing my precious children. Countless nights were I picking up charting after I tucked the kids in bed.

Little by little, I was getting exhausted. It was as if some mysterious force was draining my energy pack. There was no chance to recharge before the power was drained some more. Work became a dreading mandatory routine. My focus was no longer on providing the best care to patients, but to escape work. The physical and emotional exhaustion became constant residents in me. I was quick to anger. Feeling sad, frustrated and overwhelmed were so common that there was not really room for other more pleasant emotions. It was work, work and more work. There was no time to do anything else. Even if there was time, I did not have the physical energy or the emotional capacity to do things I used to enjoy doing.

Looking back, I had all the signs and symptoms of burnout. Think of it as a camp fire. For the fire to burn brightly, you need dry wood and oxygen. While the dry wood is being burned, at times there may be external forces to extinguish the fire, such as rain or an inflammable blanket. As the firewood is being burned up, you need to add more wood to the fire to keep it burning.

Burnout is like the campfire being exhausted because no additional wood is added. Or there is an accelerated action to extinguish the fire by rain. Or suffocating the fire by covering it with a large blanket, or smothering it with an intense concentration of carbon dioxide.

To avoid burnout, just like the campfire, you will have to guard the fire carefully. Just as the external factors may be unpredictable in the country, there may be unexpected factors and other known risk factors to cause burnout. It is important to recognize what triggers and leads to the path of exhaustion.

Once you identify the risk factors, assess the situation. How much firewood is left? It is important to always give yourself time to pause and check. It is best to replenish the wood before the fire is extinguished. Replenish by taking a step back. Allow yourself rest. Give yourself permission to have adequate sleep. You will be more refreshed and more productive.

As much as you may believe that there is no time to do anything other than work, you get to be creative to find time to care for yourself. Plan some time to exercise every day. That is another way to keep the fire burning.

To reduce the stressors in your life, practice mindfulness. Live in the present instead of rushing from one place to another. Appreciate what you have and be thankful. Remind yourself what your goals are.

After you practice what we just discussed, to replenish from within, evaluate the external situation. As most physicians experience burnout from work, examine your job. Is there anything you can change before quitting your job? Such as changing your outlook, decreasing the patient documentation time, or negotiating a 4-day work week. It does not hurt to ask yourself and the people in charge, if you are an employee.

Being able to share your emotional burdens is also helpful. Find a close friend, an accountability partner, or a life coach to help you.

Fast forward my life to the present. I hired a life coach, learned to practice mindfulness and relaxation. I exercise every day. Although I am still working on getting more sleep, it is alright. We are here to learn and grow. Currently, I no longer feel stressed. I can proudly say that I am not burned out. My campfire is burning strong, and has a regular supply of firewood – so much so that I am sharing what I have learned and practice with fellow physicians.

When you recognize that you are experiencing burnout, feeling stuck, stressed, overwhelmed and frustrated, do not stay in despair. There is always a way to replenish your firewood and to decrease burnout.

To all my physician friends, if you want to go from burnout to experiencing pleasant emotions most of the time, I am here to help you. Message me to find out more about my 1:1 physician coaching program.


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