Ways to make sure 2022 doesn’t stink for docs


Depending on the data you’re looking at, 40%-60% of physicians are burned out.

Research studies and the eye test reveal the painfully obvious: Colleagues are tired, winded, spent, and at times way past burned out. People aren’t asking me if they’re burned out. They know they’re burned out; heck, they can even recite the Maslach burnout inventory, forward and backward, in a mask, or while completing a COVID quarantine. A fair share of people know the key steps to prevent burnout and promote recovery.

What I’m starting to see more of is, “Why should I even bother to recover from this? Why pick myself up again just to get another occupational stress injury (burnout, demoralization, moral injury, etc.)?” In other words, it’s not just simply about negating burnout; it’s about supporting and facilitating the motivation to work.

We’ve been through so much with COVID that it might be challenging to remember when you saw a truly engaged work environment. No doubt, we have outstanding professionals across medicine who answer the bell every day. However, if you’ve been looking closely, many teams/units have lost a bit of the zip and pep. The synergy and trust aren’t as smooth, and at noon, everyone counts the hours to the end of the shift.

You may be thinking, Well, of course, they are; we’re still amid a pandemic, and people have been through hell. Your observation would be correct, except I’ve personally seen some teams weather the pandemic storm and still remain engaged (some even more involved).

The No. 1 consult result for the GW Resiliency and Well-Being Center, where I work, has been on lectures for burnout. The R&WC has given so many of these lectures that my dreams take the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Overall the talks have gone very well. We’ve added skills sections on practices of whole-person care. We’ve blitzed the daylights out of restorative sleep, yet I know we are still searching for the correct narrative.

Motivated staff, faculty, and students will genuinely take in the information and follow the recommendations; however, they still struggle to find that drive and zest for work. Yes, moving from burnout to neutral is reasonable but likely won’t move the needle of your professional or personal life. We need to have the emotional energy and the clear desire to utilize that energy for a meaningful purpose.

Talking about burnout in specific ways is straightforward and, in my opinion, much easier than talking about engagement. Part of the challenge when trying to discuss engagement is that people can feel invalidated or that you’re telling them to be stoic. Or worse yet, that the problem of burnout primarily lies with them. It’s essential to recognize the role of an organizational factor in burnout (approximately 80%, depending on the study); still, even if you address burnout, people may not be miserable, but it doesn’t mean they will stay at their current job (please cue intro music for the Great Resignation).

Engagement models have existed for some time and certainly have gained much more attention in health care settings over the past 2 decades. Engagement can be described as having three components: dedication, vigor, and absorption. When a person is filling all three of these components over time, presto – you get the much-sought-after state of the supremely engaged professional.

These models definitely give us excellent starting points to approach engagement from a pre-COVID era. In COVID and beyond, I’m not sure how these models will stand up in a hybrid work environment, where autonomy and flexibility could be more valued than ever. Personally, COVID revealed some things I was missing in my work pre-COVID:

  • Time to think and process. This was one of the great things about being a consultation-liaison psychiatrist; it was literally feast or famine.
  • Doing what I’m talented at and really enjoy.
  • Time is short, and I want to be more present in the life of my family.
  • Growth and curiosity are vitally important to me. These have to be part of my daily ritual and practice.

The list above isn’t exhaustive, but I’ve found them to be my own personal recipe for being engaged. Over the next series of articles, I’m going to focus on engagement and factors related to key resilience. These articles will be informed by a front-line view from my colleagues, and hopefully start to separate the myth from reality on the subject of health professional engagement and resilience.

Everyone be safe and well!

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