When I went through medical school, there was no talk about burnout, resilience or managing my many hats as a military officer, wife, mother and oh yes, physician. Somehow these issues weren’t discussed instead the focus was on patient needs over personal needs, self-sacrifice, and getting the job done no matter what the personal cost. Obviously, this culture of self-denial was not healthy or sustainable. Yet, it wasn’t until I had my first child that the ridiculousness of this mentality became apparent to me.
My daughter and I at my promotion ceremony.
Being a Physician Officer is a blessing and a challenge.
It was about that same time, that physician suicide also came on my radar in a very personal way: a physician at my facility suicided. So I started studying burnout and physician depression. I also began reaching out to physicians who were under increased stress; either struggling in residency, having experienced an unexpected outcome or under increased scrutiny for whatever reason. Talk about painful.
My career took a swift turn toward caring for physicians who were “burned out” and struggling. Soon, my own “mom guilt,” high personal standards and unhealthy drive led me down a similar path as well. One I’ll share later. But for now, these are my top 5 tips for managing burnout as a professional woman no matter what your career field:
- Call it by its name
So often we attribute our fatigue, sadness and lack of motivation to “being a working mom.” We tell ourselves “of course I am going to feel blah I work hard.” But it does not have to be this way if we recognize it for what it is and do something about it.
Burn-out is characterized by three things: emotional exhaustion, a withdrawal from relationships and an approach to others marked by cynicism and a sour, callous attitude, and finally a sense that the work you do, doesn’t matter.
For women, the first sign is usually emotional and physical exhaustion, trouble sleeping and waking feeling tired. Many professionals feel a bit tired at the end of the day but with burnout you never recover, even after a long weekend. This is a red flag, if you feel exhausted between shifts then call it what it is, burnout! Then do something!
- Eat enough and Eat Clean
Our jobs are hard and we run from one thing to the next, often skipping meals or eating processed, readily available “junk.” It may not be enough calories and it is likely not nutritionally sound. Start simply by taking steps to eat clean. What does that mean? Eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. The easiest and simplest solution, LOTS of fresh vegetables and fruit. My easy morning routine includes a simple “green smoothie” and I do meal preparation for the week of lunches on Sundays. Easy peasy!
My favorite smoothie recipe is so simple 1:1:1.5
I cup of greens (I like baby spinach)
1 cup of almond milk
1.5 cup of ripe fruit (I usually use blueberries or pineapple – frozen)
tips: to avoid leafy chunks blend almond milk and leafy greens FIRST, add the fruit second and if you use non-frozen fruit throw in some ice cubes
- Exercise, every damn day
It is counter-intuitive but exercise gives you energy and you need energy so do it. It can be whatever you love. It is important to schedule it just as you would an important meeting and do NOT flake on yourself. You are too important. Moving every day is not only good for your body but it is also good for your mind. It allows you to get out of your head and into feeling the power of YOU! With time you will start to see improvement in your endurance and strength, giving a boost to your self esteem (which likely has been suffering a bit as well).
An easy way to get started is to simply walk. Set your alarm 30 minutes early, put on some tennis shoes and get outside. Using your senses, enjoy the experience: smell the world around you, note the temperature of the air, feel the wind on your cheeks and listen to the sounds of birds, dogs, cars, whatever.
- Take action to schedule JOY
Use Sunday as a day to prepare for your self-care during the next week. It need not be elaborate or complicated and in fact, it shouldn’t be otherwise you won’t do it. Really think about what brings you joy, makes you smile or has you feeling inspired, then schedule it or work to have more of it in your schedule.
At home with two children, I rarely get a moment for myself so I have created a skincare ritual that brings me joy. It’s easy to escape to my bathroom for 5 minutes, shut the door and take care of me. Plus, my skin looks better than it has in years and I love looking and thus, feeling my very best! I also love time with friends but I don’t often have the availability to do a big “girls night out” instead I do a two-fer! I meet up with a girlfriend for a walk . . . wham bam, exercise and gal-pal time in a quick hour.
At work, I enjoy a cup of tea in the afternoon. The warmth of the mug, the smell of lemongrass and green tea bring me calm. I take 5 minutes and do nothing but drink my tea and enjoy it. It is a priority, it centers me and then I am ready to tackle my less enjoyable work requirements such as notes in the electronic medical record.
5. Find meaning in the moment
If you are burned out then it may seem like the work you are doing really doesn’t make a big difference. That is the burnout talking, you’ve recognized it as such (#1) but it is not so easy to shake that feeling. Think about the work experiences that are in line with your personal goals and passions (or what they were) and search for those moments in your day. You are likely out of practice since your brain has been a bit cynical and negative. So make an effort and heck, challenge yourself to write two to three things daily that resulted in a positive outcome or had a positive influence on others. At the end of the day and first thing the next morning, review your list. Pretty soon, you will be orienting to good, to the meaning of what it is you do. It really doesn’t matter how big or small the action or event.
This is just a start and event these may seem overwhelming at first so pick ONE to start with then add another and another. Eventually, you will be feeling better one moment, one action at a time. It is a series of small steps that if done consistently will bring you big results.