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Burnout and Your Mindset

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

Editor: As I’m sure you’re aware by now, burnout is a huge problem for doctors. Dr. Jordan Frey, founder of the Prudent Plastic Surgeon shares his personal experience with burnout in today’s guest post!

Burnout and Your Mindset

I recently gave a few talks to graduating residents and fellows in plastic surgery in a virtual symposium. One of the talks was a 5 minute spot on my experience with physician burnout.

It really made me reflect back on my actual experience. I don’t know that I had ever fully done that before.

My interaction with burnout was sort of hit and run

It happened in training. Year 4/7. I didn’t realize what was going on and waded my way through it. Things got better as I focused more on self care and what I/my family actually wanted. I graduated training. Then, I realized what I had was burnout. I kept moving on with a positive mindset.

But I never fully processed things until recently. That little 5 minute presentation made me do that. And I’m glad that it did.

So I thought I would share in case anyone else has or is or will go through a similar experience.

If you are experiencing this, there are a ton of other amazing resources on this topic out there!

So here is my journey with physician burnout

I never thought that I would experience burn out when I started training.

And I never thought that I had experienced burn out until after I finished training.

What caused it?

There are so many factors that we all face as physicians or high-pressure professionals that contribute to burnout. These are amplified even more as a trainee.

Let’s name just a few:

  • Long hours
  • Limited autonomy
  • Minimal control over schedule
  • Limited time with family and friends
  • Keeping up with an external image and expectations
  • Financial strain

Some of these factors are out of our control. And that really stresses us out. Not coming to terms with that lack of control is a big reason that burnout happens.

But some factors leading to physician burnout are in our control

I’ll highlight them:

  • Long hours
  • Limited autonomy
  • Minimal control over schedule
  • Limited time with family and friends
  • Keeping up with an external image and expectations
  • Financial strain

These two major factors leading to physician burnout are within our control.

And if we can learn to accept what we cannot control and optimize what we can control, I really believe that is how burnout is dealt with!

First, it’s probably best to explain why these two issues had me really bent out of shape and burning out

In terms of external image and exceptions, I’ve touch on this a bunch at the beginning of my blogging days so here is that refresher if you need it.

In short, I was making assumptions about what I wanted based on what other thought I should want/wanted. As a result, I forgot about why I love medicine and plastic surgery.

In terms of finances, I had a complete lack of education which led to bad decisions and ignorance and stress. Over consumerism consumed me. I had a totally unhealthy relationship with money. It was a huge source of my burnout.

Then, I faced my mistakes, learned about personal finance, and made a plan. And I found myself with less burn out, more joy, and becoming a better doctor!

An important qualifier

Before going further, I do want to make a very important qualifier about everything that I am writing.

All of these qualities contribute to burnout or moral injury or any other synonym.

Experiencing this is not a weakness of you, the physician. It is a (normal) response to external circumstances. Some of these circumstances have an element of control while others do not.

Regardless, the answers lie internally, not externally

Because of this simple but very true fact, some obvious answers can be really deceiving.

Things like changing your job/career/practice/location may seem like a straight forward fix. You may think that seeking more money will change things around.

Maybe working less. For some, it may be working more. For others it may be taking a break or hanging up the white coat for good.

These can be the answer. But doing any of those things without an internal examination first to define what is actually causing your burnout will NOT make things magically better. None of these address the root cause.

My solution to physician burnout

Here it is in one sentence:

I learned to ignore the image (real or perceived) of success put out there by others, focus on my passions and goals, and establish a plan for financial well-being, stability, and independence, rather than excess consumerism.

That is very specifically what worked for me.

But it will not work for you. Because you are not me and I am not you.

So what is the answer in more broad, generalizable terms?

Mindset!

That is the answer. Mindset is how you can internally choose how you will react to external circumstances. Even those outside of your control.

Lots of fun at a conference tennis tournament in 2020

Mindset is the story that you tell yourself. And it can be positive or negative. Empowering or defeating. But it takes a LOT of practice. I’m not there yet. But I’m improving.

Answer these fundamental questions

Why did I choose this in the first place?

What does my ideal workday/week/month look like?

What does my ideal life look like?

After you answer this questions, continue through the process

This is not an easy process. For me, it required a long and hard look at my goals after experiencing burnout.

I needed to transition focus from what I thought I needed to do to what I wanted to do. A big part of it for me was to realize that it is not always necessary to do the hardest thing just to prove that I could do it. This was a problem for me. I wanted to do the hardest thing, not necessarily because I wanted to but because I wanted to prove that I could. But, I had already proved this to myself! There is no one else left to impress.

So, what is the process?

The process is examining the basic principles of what makes you happy. Then enact those principles in your life. Sounds simple but it’s not. However, it is worth it. It’s your life. Wouldn’t you do just about anything to make it as good as it can be?

So do this hard thing!

What happened to me after physician burnout?

After going through a hit and run version of burnout, I needed to face it. I needed to do a deep self-examination. It was hard but it was worth it.

I came out with a rekindled purpose, improved well-being, and became a better doctor.

I also discovered a new passion which led to this blog and has given me so much enjoyment and fulfillment. This new passion is to help others achieve personal and financial   well-being by sharing my experiences, failures, successes, growth, and evolution while I go through the same process myself.

What do you think? Have you experienced burnout or moral injury? Did you know it at the time? How did you deal with it? Any tips for others? Let us know in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  1. Accidentally Retired

    Great post! I think this applies to more than doctors. I have seen burnout in the startup world in a similar fashion. I have faced it myself. It applies to all high achievers, but I can imagine doctors are especially susceptible given the training that goes into your careers in the first place. You are 100% right with focusing on the 3 questions and really digging deep.

    Reply
  2. Introvert Investor MD

    Jordan, thanks for what you do! It is great to see a fellow surgeon active in the medical financial blogosphere. Although, I greatly appreciate the work of the TPP, PoF, PIMD and WCI and have benefitted from their efforts, they all come from shift work type specialities. It is a different perspective from those of us in surgery and related specialities where the common solution for burnout of cutting back/going part time etc. is a lot more complicated. I too am suffering from burnout and fully agree with you that although burnout is commonplace within medicine, the solution for each physician is very personal and individual and depends on many factors. Like you I am trying to self reflect and determine the why’s and the path to developing an ideal life and truly meaningful career. Again, thanks for what you do and I hope you will keep writing on this topic.

    Reply

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