Seven Habits for Healthcare Workers on the Edge of Burnout
by GARY R. SIMONDS, MD,MHCDS
& WAYNE M. SOTILE, PHD
It’s easy for healthcare workers to fixate on the dark side of the industry. And given the grim realities of the past year, that’s truer than ever. Stressful work conditions, difficult patients, EHR frustrations, and constant exposure to suffering can cast a major pall over our outlook if we let it. But we don’t have to let it. We have more control than we realize over how we perceive our job—and a new year is the perfect time to make a big mental shift.
Many of us have mental and emotional bad habits that make us feel disengaged, ambivalent, and destined for burnout. For example: ruminating, complaining. dwelling on the negative and expecting the worst. All of this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But when we focus instead on building up our resilience—and focusing on what we want more of rather than obsessing over what we don’t want—we can re-engage and actually learn to look at our work with new eyes.
Here are some habits that can help you build resilience and re-focus on the meaning of your work and the abundance of good experiences that come with it (yes, even now). Consider hardwiring at least one of them (or perhaps all of them) as 2021 gets underway.
Let the arrival of the new year mark the end of chronic negativity. Why not make this January your symbolic cue to stop feeding your appetite for cynicism, pessimism, nihilism, and negative obsessing in general? Tell yourself after that date you will resist the urge to engage in sarcastic comments, complain-fests, and telling yourself negative stories about others—even when negativity seems warranted.
It takes discipline to look for the silver lining in dark circumstances. But there is almost always a positive angle. Assorted work disasters can yield invaluable learning opportunities. A “difficult” administrator may be the one who pushes for new equipment your department needs. Even when a patient has a miserable outcome, the care you provide can have a huge impact on their family and loved ones.
Every morning, remind yourself of the meaning of your work. Never forget that that meaning is an antidote to burnout and despair. Whether you’re a physician, a nurse, or any other worker at any level, you’re part of an honorable enterprise. And you get to be part of it in the most miraculous era—where we actually cure many diseases, deliver babies safely, put back together horribly injured beings, and so much more.
Before you go into work, sit in your car for a few minutes reflecting on how fortunate you are to get to do this for a living. Yes, your job is incredibly hard. But you also get to make an incredible contribution to the world. The five minutes you spend thinking about that can shift your mindset from despair to gratitude. It can change the tone of your entire day.
Take time every day for self-compassion and self-care.
This is the first of two critical factors in building and sustaining resilience. You will need to normalize the concept of self-compassion and self-care, because many people in healthcare wear their self-neglect as a badge of honor. Notice what makes you feel good, what excites and inspires you, and what brings you joy, peace, wonder, or meaning. Give yourself permission to do these things.
This may mean finding space in your day for a “humanity break.” Relax with a cup of hot tea. Do a 15-minute meditation. Head outside during your lunch break to stretch your legs. Breathe in the fresh air and feel the sun on your face. These are small things that we too often deny ourselves, but they can shift the mood in profound ways.
Nourish and cherish your relationships.
This is the second critical factor for healthcare workers. We are social creatures, but the intense work we do can be isolating, and our fatigue after work hours isolates us further. Because we are tired and drained, we may stop developing new friendships. It’s critical to stop this cycle and commit to nourishing our relationships—with co-workers as well as loved ones. (Right now, we may have to talk to friends on the phone or visit via video chat, but do it anyway. It’s crucial for your mental health.)
Look for “daily uplifts.”
They are all around. Just like nature, modern medicine is chock full of miracles, and we are at the epicenter of these miracles. On a busy day however, we buzz right by them. Engaging in the miracles or “daily uplifts”—those happy, reaffirming, exhilarating, peace-restoring events of the day—and noticing them, savoring them, celebrating them will fill our tool chest with bundles of positivity and will arm us against the challenges of our days.
Celebrate the successes of each day with your colleagues and yourself: an improvement in a patient’s condition, a thank you from a family member, a discharge of a patient you never thought would go home, a compliment from a co-worker, catching an error in patient care, an interesting exchange, learning something new, etc.
Get as much fresh air and sunshine as you can.
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be a real problem for healthcare workers. When you work in an artificially lit office or hospital with few windows you may feel chronically tired, listless, and down. Get outside all you can; on your lunch break if possible, and certainly on your days off. Even during the winter months this is important.
Renew your commitment to better physical health.
Taking care of your physical health creates a strong foundation for total wellness. When you eat well and exercise—and let’s face it, this is much easier to do during the warmer months—you will have energy to put into your own self-care throughout the most frustrating days. A few suggestions:
- Go for regular hikes in nature at nearby beaches, national forests, or your local park.
- Take a 20-minute midday walk with a colleague.
- Make a goal to cook at home at least 3 nights a week.
- Bring healthy snacks to work like sliced apples, oranges, celery, nuts, etc.
- Cut down on coffee or switch to decaf or herbal tea. Drink more water.
- Get more sleep. Crack a window to let in fresh air for a good night’s rest.
All humans inherently possess resilience. Even when we go through periods of darkness and even burnout, we can bounce back. A new year is a good time to focus on building the habits that nurture our resilience and allow us to thrive going forward.
Gary R. Simonds, MD, MHCDS, and Wayne M. Sotile, PhD, are coauthors of Thriving in Healthcare: A Positive Approach to Reclaim Balance and Avoid Burnout in Your Busy Life, The Thriving Physician: How to Avoid Burnout by Choosing Resilience Throughout Your Medical Career, and Building Resilience in Neurosurgical Residents.