In the medical profession, burnout is becoming more and more commonplace. According to a 2021 study from the American Medical Association that surveyed 20,947 physicians and other medical workers, 38% self-reported anxiety or depression, 43% suffered from work overload, and 49% said they had burnout. The Association of American Medical Colleges notes that 55% of frontline health workers have reported burnout.
Burnout is brought on by a combination of exhaustion, a lack of personalized relating, and a sense of overwhelm caused by chronic stress. Obviously, this can affect both the patient and the medical professional who’s caring for them.
Research reported in Oncology Insights notes that nearly nine out of ten oncologists indicated feeling emotional exhaustion at work, and two out of three experienced other symptoms of burnout, including feeling cynical, detached, unaccomplished, or ineffective. Beyond these symptoms, healthcare workers (especially in the pandemic years) could be suffering from a form of psychological distress with potentially more grievous impacts than burnout: moral injury.
Moral injury encompasses the psychological, physical, relational, and spiritual impacts of a cascade of situations and events on someone who has a strong moral code and who tends to work in environments with high stakes (such as administering care in a hospital emergency room), but who is also expected to make decisions that conflict with their moral compass—often, frequently and systematically. For many medical workers, this can look like turning away patients in desperate need, not offering adequate care due to a lack of medical personnel, and isolating severely ill and dying patients from family members because of safety protocols.
Many of these decisions can feel dehumanizing (toward oneself and others) and can precipitate feelings of guilt and shame about one’s inability or powerlessness to do something different—as well as rage and hopelessness toward an impersonal, overburdened system that seems to have few workable solutions for efficient and equitable care. Moral injury can also lead to excruciating self-judgment, a loss of trust in oneself and institutions, and an erosion of relationships (whether personal or professional).
The pandemic has been a traumatic experience for many people, but especially those working in the medical professions. If you’re a medical professional who has experienced burnout or moral injury, it’s important to recognize the sheer number of stressors you’re dealing with. Recognize what those stressors are, as they are likely to activate negative emotions, memories, thoughts, and beliefs. Many of these stressors are both systemic (bad equipment, a hostile work environment, long wait times, etc.), as well as personal (worries and concerns about family, finances, health, etc.). And although we may not have control over all these factors, identifying our stressors can lead us to make decisions that help mitigate their toll on us.
Here are five tips for caring for yourself in the wake of burnout:
- Set healthy boundaries: This can be the hardest one for people who are accustomed to dispensing care to people in need, but it’s probably the most crucial. Beware of overworking and running yourself ragged in your attempt to meet other people’s needs. You may have to limit the amount of time you spend on email, commit to working within a set schedule, and disengage from toxic or overly demanding relationships as you rebuild your connection to yourself.
- Make intentional space for yourself: This might look like finding time to build a meditation practice, unplugging from technology on a regular basis, and taking time to rest and recharge by doing things that bring you pleasure: reading, hiking, gardening, socializing with friends who uplift you, cultivating your spirituality, or engaging in nourishing creative activities.
- Care for your body: Often, the first thing to go out the window when we’re under duress is a healthy routine with respect to our physical health. It may feel overwhelming to prioritize this dimension of your life, but take baby steps. This could look like moving your body or getting exercise on a daily basis (even if it’s just 10 minutes of Yoga with Adriene), getting adequate sleep and good nutrition, and dispelling tension through other activities (getting bodywork, taking a bath, unwinding with a cup of tea while in nature, etc.). Falling in love with a new hobby can be a great way to recover your energy and redirect it toward caring for yourself.
- Accept your limits: As humans, we’re not meant to be perpetual motion machines that are constantly on, performing and achieving and meeting bottom lines. This attitude is prevalent in our society—so it’s no wonder burnout is becoming more common. We simply can’t be everything to everyone all the time. As much as we want to help others, we need to acknowledge that we’re not helping if we’re running on empty. So, focus on filling your cup when you’re down in the dregs.
- Connect with a mental-health professional: Even people in care professions may be at a loss as to how to care for ourselves—body, mind, and spirit. You can learn to soothe and comfort yourself by working with a mental-health professional who specializes in helping people to build skills around mindfulness, self-compassion, resilience, and self-regulation—all of which can contribute to a reduction in burnout.
Again, while there is only so much you can do to address a significant social problem that is impacting so many of us on some level, you have more power than you think. An important aspect of the process of growing down and doing our soul work is nourishing ourselves at our very roots: physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. The more each of us commits to our personal soul work—by recognizing that experiences like burnout can be important catalysts, encouraging us to turn toward ourselves with compassion and care—the more we become capable of engaging in our life’s work from a solid foundation of dignity and deep respect for ourselves.