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Giving Back to Yourself To Give Others

Feb 12, 2024

For a few years, I dreaded waking up to go to work. Partly from lack of sleep and more from not wanting to go to work. Another long day at work, probably 14 hours, including all the charting and administrative duties. I seemed to be rushing to get to the next point all the time.

As much as I enjoyed helping patients and enjoyed connecting with them, my focus was just to get by to finish seeing all the patients and all the work. I started the day with physical exhaustion from lack of sleep, and mental exhaustion from chronically being drained in the long hours at work, not to mention the emotional challenges faced as an oncologist.

What was the point? What did I work so hard for? The lack of control and the inability to cultivate meaningful relationships with patient drained me even further. I was far from enjoying what I chose to do.

Besides having partial numbness to feelings, I felt inadequate. I could not take care of my family the way I wanted. I was taking good care of my patients’ physical diseases and was not able to relate to them fully on a personal level because I was emotionally depleted. It was easy for me to be irritated and lose patience. I did not think that I would have any job satisfaction. Getting done was a necessity and a minimum baseline. It did not give me fulfillment. I felt helpless that I was not able to help and connect with others the way I wanted to.

Burnout from your job is a serious condition. Although it is not an official medical diagnosis, it affects majority of the physicians. A big factor is the long hours at work. Many physicians spend an extra 3-4 hours a day after seeing their last patient to finish up the patient charts, making phone calls and reviewing test results. Many institutions also set up an incentive-based compensation for the physicians that if they do not meet a certain amount of revenue, their salaries may be decreased. Many physicians also feel the lack of control with their schedule, with the plan of care (because of insurance restrictions), and with how their work is structured.

The result is feeling stressed, drained, easy to anger and the job becomes meaningless. For me, the focus was no longer on helping patients or to have a meaningful relationship with them. It was to get by another day without collapsing, both physically and emotionally. I was beating myself up because I did not think I was doing the best job I could to take care of my patients. At the same time, I gave it my all – my time, my energy, whatever my physical and emotional reserves were left.

In fact, I was running on empty. I was trying to give without anything else to give – time, physical health and emotional well-being. It was like I was trying to helping another person in hunger by giving food, except I had no food and no money to buy the food to give.

To be able to give, you have got to have something to give. Running on empty chronically will drain you so much that you may feel detached at work, you struggle outside of work, and you may use other things to escape your situation, such as alcohol, drugs or constantly browsing on social media.

To be able to give, you have got to take care of yourself first. Avoid running on empty by paying attention to what your body and your mind is telling you.

Evaluate your job situation. Before thinking about quitting, is there something you can do to improve your work situation?

You are likely not alone in this. If you feel burnout at work, talk to your coworkers, find support from a mentor, a coach, a counselor.

There is always time to rest and recharge if you make it your priority. Taking a break helps you relax, decrease stress, and gives you time to refocus and refuel. You will end up being more efficient than if you do not take a break.

Taking care of yourself also means you are choosing to have adequate sleep, regular physical activity and eating healthy foods.

Practice mindfulness. Have the awareness of what you are thinking and how you are feeling because of your thoughts. If you are angry, ask yourself what the reason is.

For me, the long hours of charting was the bane of my existence. So I made the decision to do something about it and worked on improving my efficiency. I sought help from a physician coach. Now that I am going home on time with my clinical work done, it is a gamechanger of my life. I feel more in control. I get to feel my feelings instead of numbing myself and just going through the motions of daily routine. I get to have the emotional capacity to fully care for others and interact with patients the way I want to. One of the most satisfying things in being a physician is to be able to connect with patients on a personal level, so that they feel safe and they feel the loving care.

Taking care of yourself first is very important, no matter what you do. Self-care is not selfish. It is almost selfish without self-care because you are not focusing on having the best version of yourself to give others the best. Taking care of yourself comes first so that you can take care of others.

Are you ready to stop feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Are you ready to have more time to do what you want?


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