In a 2015 Medscape poll, half of all family physicians, internists, general surgeons, and infectious disease specialists reported feelings of burnout. More than half of critical care and emergency medicine doctors reported these feelings, too. The lowest rates, among dermatologists, psychiatrists, and pathologists, were still over one third. Physicians’ Life spoke with Francine R. Gaillour, MD, MBA, former practicing internist and now founder and executive director of the Physician Coaching Institute, which helps doctors who are struggling with a career that feels flat. We asked how doctors can deal with professional dissatisfaction and learn to love their careers again.
Dr. Gaillour: Let me first say that I don’t like the term “burnout.” It’s a pessimistic, throw-in-the-towel kind of term. I’d rather talk about fulfillment. Rather than say “How do you cure burnout?” ask “How do you feel more fulfilled and get yourself closer to joy?” Every physician I've coached is still very hopeful about creating a more fulfilling situation for themselves.
Many physicians were called to medicine by a soul-driven desire to be of service, and they find they are not as content as they were when they started on their journey. But it doesn’t mean they have to chuck it all. I think leaving clinical practice for most physicians is the wrong decision. Often the lack of fulfillment has little to do with patient load.
There are opportunities to become fully joyful. I categorize those opportunities in three areas. Depending on the physician, it may be just one of these areas where a change is more impactful.
1. RELATIONSHIPS If you ask people what makes them feel most fulfilled, relationships with patients, colleagues, and staff are extremely important. But many doctors keep to themselves or don’t actively develop good working relationships. That’s a huge area for optimizing. You do have control over how you handle yourself, how you deal with colleagues.
2. EXPANSION Physicians often have a very limited view of how they doctor. They don’t envision themselves as doctor-as-teacher, doctor-as-author, doctor-as-speaker. If you’re in a community practice, there are so many opportunities to expand yourself as a physician. You can give talks, write, lead workshops, start a blog, start a newsletter, do standup comedy. Create something, develop a product. There’s a huge opportunity to expand the definition of doctor.
3. SPIRITUALITY This category is about making sure your spiritual well is full, because that’s what you’re going to draw from in terms of strength and resiliency. What are your unique talents and gifts? What is it you were meant to share with the world? A lot of my clients are seriously talented, but they’ve put that on the back burner. Attending to it may not require that you do a lot. One of my clients, an accomplished pianist, put a piano in the waiting room. During lunch time he’ll go in and play for 30 minutes. In his waiting room is a sign that says “The music is for all of us to heal.” He's referring to himself as well. This category is about enhancing your soul.
Do a personal inventory in these three areas. I actually have some inventories on my website that are free to download. When you say, "I'm burnt out," you relinquish control over what you can change. It's important to acknowledge that you can come up for air.