The demands of COVID-19 are contributing to a threat of widespread burnout among healthcare professionals. Endless emergencies, untold volumes of suffering, and widespread issues with how healthcare is delivered are challenging many clinicians as they go about their profession.
According to Dr. Anya Koutras, a family medicine physician and clinician wellness expert at the University of Vermont Medical Center, a place to begin healing for those experiencing or at risk of burnout is to remind themselves why they chose their current positions, as well as why they work in healthcare as a profession. Some of those reasons might be to help others, to make a difference in people's lives, and even a love of the pure science involved in medicine. Helping people might bring joy to their work. Others might find meaning when patients and their families express appreciation and enjoy making personal and professional connections. Some people who work in healthcare can also be driven by curiosity, as well as enjoy being a role model for other people.
One way to frame the idea of burnout is to envision what makes a good clinician. These are characteristics like compassion, dedication, being very patient-centric, feeling empathy, being driven by curiosity, and wanting up-to-date knowledge for treating a healthcare situation. The urge to be a caregiver may be an expression of kindness. Realistically, these are people who enjoy or appreciate doing things for others. The contrast is with being a ‘well clinician.’ They really have all the same characteristics previously mentioned, but are also focused inward, in a way that also impacts others receiving care. Koutras shares that many healthcare professionals start their career with the intention to be good clinicians and eventually reach the state of being a well clinician, related to when that need becomes obvious in how much it impacts others being treated and in the profession.
Koutras quotes Christina Maslach, who writes that “Burnout is an erosion of the soul caused by a deterioration of one's values, dignity, spirit and soul.” In healthcare some of the top causes of burnout, may be related to a specific job, or to the difficulty of having a life outside of work, given all the demands of a healthcare career. There's an innate conditioning inherent to medical education as well as the healthcare industry where taking care of ourselves gets lost and fails to receive adequate attention. Burnout is amplified during the current pandemic, especially with the uncertainty that pervades much of the practice of healthcare. Other reasons COVID-19 is such a challenge includes resource scarcity, how treating COVID-19 requires separation from family and loved ones, extra isolation due to physical distancing, and pervasive grief. There's also financial stress involved for many people in healthcare. Some clinicians may even feel guilt about receiving the vaccine early, which they're able to do as health care providers. One thing we do know is that burnout is widespread among healthcare professionals.
One of the ways that people can take care of themselves is by instituting a self-care practice. Interestingly, surveys have shown that though healthcare professionals are well aware of the value of self-care and some of the practices involved, not many are finding the time or the right technique to help themselves. However, it's incumbent upon anyone working in healthcare who is feeling even a hint of burnout, to come up with a way to prevent it.
Koutras has a prescription for addressing burnout or its potential that she calls the “Five L's:”
In the big picture you may ask yourself what you can do in life to cultivate these goals. For example, if sadness is a serious problem, the best way to approach sadness may be to give yourself permission to be sad. Also, find someone who will listen to you as you talk about your feelings. Be vulnerable and express yourself, as you embrace what you're feeling. Ultimately, a majority of people working in healthcare are hurting in many different ways. The best advice is to accept your hurting first, then share it. It helps to let someone witness and respond to it.
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