Healthcare can be one of the most rewarding industries to work in, but with understaffing and an overstretched NHS, cases of professional burnout are on the rise. Faced with heavy workloads and little time to reflect, many healthcare professionals fail to spot the warning signs until it’s too late. In most cases, people will attempt to meet the professional expectations placed upon them, without questioning if they’re reasonable or even achievable. The desire not to let co-workers and patients down leads to many healthcare workers accepting heavy schedules without adequate backup resources such as sleeping and eating facilities. This means that feeling tired and stressed can become the norm. Sometimes these problems resolve themselves naturally, but often they lead to a situation where doctors and other healthcare professionals simply stop functioning. Burn out is counterproductive, as it often involves lengthy recuperation periods and absences, and can also lead to other long term problems such as depression, alcohol abuse or insomnia.
The difference between physician burnout and simple work stress is your ability to recover your reserves of physical and emotional energy. If you can recover and function normally the following week, it’s likely you’re within the boundaries of normal working patterns. However, if this happens too frequently, you could find yourself caught in a downward spiral leading to burnout. A standardised assessment of Physician Burnout called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) has been in use since the 1970s. Here are the three main warning signs it talks about.
You have no energy after hospital rounds or being on call. You’re unable to recover with time off and over time your energy level begins to follow a downward spiral.
You find yourself feeling cynical and resentful towards patients. Your attitude is negative, flippant and detached. This aspect of burnout is commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue”.
This is characterised by a fatalistic attitude and doubts about whether you are offering quality care and if what you do makes a difference.
Everyone has a combination of professional and personal stresses that place demands on their physical and emotional reserves. Burnout often happens when you’re unable to balance and control these combined stresses. This is why it’s important to focus on the factors that are within our control, as these can make the difference. While observing the necessary professional protocols, healthcare practitioners also need to practice good levels of self-care when it comes to their own wellbeing.
Practice good communication
There can be an assumption that healthcare workers automatically know how to resolve their own problems. Asking for psychological help can be professionally stigmatised. This belief is often strongest among healthcare professionals themselves, who are no different from anyone else when it comes to dealing with tiredness and stress. Your colleagues need to know about factors that could affect patient care, and that includes your physical and emotional state. If you’re feeling unusually tired or stressed, then letting your shift colleagues know is a good idea. Although this isn’t a long term solution, initiating conversation about something that could be a potential problem will allow people to know what’s going on and to offer you support.
There are many professional channels available to healthcare workers depending what kind of institution you’re working in. For example, the NHS GP Health Service is a confidential NHS service for GPs and GP trainees in England. The GP Health Service can help with issues relating to a mental health concern, including stress or depression, or an addiction problem, in particular where these might affect work.
Take note of the signs
Ignoring warning signs of burnout can lead to much worse outcomes including depression, substance dependence, and impaired relationships. Take note if you’re drinking more alcohol than usual or using it as a way to cope or sleep. Pay attention if you begin to feel increasingly irritable and you’re experiencing more interpersonal conflict at work or home. Increased mood changes, tearfulness and changes in appetite or sleep are all warning signs of burnout.
Practice good self-care
Even if you’re schedule is busy, taking short breaks to relax or to eat properly is crucial. You can also practice deep breathing and mindfulness techniques between shifts, which are proven to be extremely effective for dealing with stress. Outside work, making sure that you eat well, exercise and get enough sleep is crucial in combatting stress.
When doctors start to feel burned out, they often become exhausted and begin to withdraw from others. This can lead to a vicious cycle of feeling socially isolated and withdrawing from those close to you. Instead, look for ways to connect with family and friends regularly and schedule social time with others so that connecting is not left up to chance.
Although it might seem like taking on more responsibility is the last thing you need if you’re stressed, taking action can help you feel in control. Despite years of health IT development, physicians still struggle to navigate clunky EHR interfaces that sometimes bury important information under unnecessary data. These systems are gradually being updated with user friendly interfaces that utilise new technology in order to streamline tasks and save time. Although these new processes can initially take time to learn and implement, they will ultimately lead to increased efficiency. To shorten this adjustment period, healthcare organisations need to prioritise adequate EHR training for all hospital or health system staff members. Taking part in training initiatives can ensure that you’re able to take advantage of new procedures that could help to improve your working day.
Burnout among healthcare workers is a serious problem that requires education, understanding and action. To read about the scale of the problem and some of the initiatives that are being put in place to tackle healthcare burnout, go to our article.
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