March 5, 2019

The three drivers of burnout and how to fight back

Have you experienced burnout?

You’re not alone. After three decades in the field of medicine, I’ve seen a lot of burnout.  Among friends, colleagues, clients and even in my own life.  The health care system asks a lot of its practitioners, even in the best of times, and this is not the best of times.

Burnout has reached alarming levels in medicine.  I have a lot to say about why, and what needs to be done, but I will save that for another post.  This post is meant to give you some tools to recognize and address burnout, whatever your profession.  These are tools I find invaluable for working with clients in my own coaching practice.

The absolute first and most important task when I’m dealing with a client who is experiencing burnout is a check to ensure there is no physical or mental health emergency.  In my capacity as a coach, I am not practicing medicine, so I screen like a coach should: I ask about anxiety, suicidal thoughts, whether my client has sought professional help.  When risks are high, it is urgently important that I connect clients with resources to support them.  Burnout can have devastating consequences, so it’s imperative to intervene promptly and effectively.

If there is not an immediate health emergency, the client and I can turn to untangling the issue.  The first step is to determine what is contributing to the burnout.  Does it involve environmental, personal or health and well-being factors?

The drivers of burnout

Burnout is commonly defined as a blend of “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”  The three types of drivers I mentioned can all contribute to these feelings.

Environmental factors:  Often, environmental factors underlie burnout, particularly when burnout is widespread within a given professional field as it is in medicine.  These factors can include policies and procedures in the workplace, organizational culture and expectations, professional culture, and entrenched ideas about what it means to work hard and work enough, as well as how success is defined.

Personal factors:  Challenges from our personal lives can contribute to burnout because they are overwhelming in and of themselves, and because they can make it more difficult to deal with professional challenges that may arise.  Relevant personal issues could include relationship challenges at home or in the workplace, caregiving demands, financial pressures, level of career satisfaction and more.

Health and well-being factors:  Work can easily intrude on time for self-care, whether by spilling into your workout time or complicating efforts to schedule medical appointments.  Over the long term, issues can pile up, taking the form of chronic illness (mental health or physical conditions), social isolation (which can contribute to poor health) and other issues that can hurt your body and mind.

In truth, these drivers of burnout can also be consequences.  As burnout sets in, relationships can suffer, as can our health.  Sometimes it can be difficult to trace burnout back to its origins and a precipitating event.  But when clients and I work together, we do our best to untangle the threads so we can determine how to combat it.

The way forward

This conversation about the drivers of burnout takes time, but as clients and I work through the issues, I develop a list of key findings.  We look at the contributing factors to determine which has the most charge or urgency, making it most important to address.  That is the first point of intervention.

For the majority of people, environmental factors may be the factor driving burnout.  In medicine, for example, systemic changes that pile clerical headaches onto already maxed-out physicians, are a major factor behind rising rates of burnout.

For some physicians, becoming a champion for themselves and their colleagues (and patients, let’s not forget) can be an empowering step in the right direction.  I like to think of working for change from inside the system as a type of guerilla warfare, and it can be really gratifying to contribute to changing the conversation around professional expectations in a given field.

For others, there may not be enough psychic energy for this kind of action.  Although burnout is not your fault, and it’s not your job to fix all the factors beyond your control that are feeding the issue, turning your attention to things that are restorative can be a wonderful salve.  Sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation.  These are tools that will take the edge off and give you room to take a deep breath and determine a better way forward.

For most of us, the idea of managing our time and calendar is a critical step in preventing or managing burnout, too.  Understanding what the most important things are to you, and making sure they land in your calendar as “big rocks” will help ensure that they don’t fall off.  If we do this routinely, it becomes easier to set boundaries about our time and not become overcommitted.

I am also a big fan of using personal time in a way that truly fills up your cup, particularly the idea of “deliberate rest,” outlined here and fleshed out in the work of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

How do you manage or prevent burnout?

I will be writing more about this in the coming weeks and months. If there’s something in particular that would help you, please let me know that as well.

Last updated March 5, 2019