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Facing Burnout as a Trainee Doctor: What’s Next?

In the medical profession, we often hear about burnout, and there’s a lot of advice out there on how to avoid it. But it’s a significant issue for many of us.

Working in medicine is really demanding. It takes years of hard work, and we often have to sacrifice a lot of our personal life and hobbies.

Our training is a long, tiring journey. We’re often sleep-deprived, and our work schedule is all over the place, with long days and nights caring for sick patients.

This can really increase our chances of getting burnt out. And sometimes, after all that hard work and sacrifice, the pay and recognition we get aren’t as much as we’d hoped for, considering the time and effort we’ve put in.

As a surgical trainee, I have spoken to many senior doctors who are ahead of me in the surgical training track.

Some of them, after years of grueling training, haven’t found the financial freedom they were looking for. They end up working non-stop in both the NHS and private practices to make ends meet and support their families.

Others have delayed starting a family or fulfilling their personal interests to focus on training. Then they realize they’ve spent their best years focusing only on work and missing out on important things like personal care, family, and relationships.

But it’s not the same story for everyone.

I’ve also seen seniors who, after progressing in their surgical careers, decided to switch to GP training instead. Their reasons were that GP training is shorter, and in the end, it means working fewer hours.

It’s all about choices in the end. Everyone’s got their own priorities, but from what I’ve seen, you’ve really got to balance all aspects of life – your personal life, career, spiritual beliefs, family, and relationships – to truly thrive.

Understanding Burnout: Types and Signs

So, what I’m going to talk about now is the issue of burnout for junior doctors in training. You might be buzzing with excitement about your medical career, keen to climb the ladder in your medical or surgical training.

But remember, you can’t really be a top-notch expert in your field if you don’t look after your own wellbeing.

It’s crucial to spot the early signs of burnout and steer clear of it. Once you’re caught in that tough cycle, it can be a real struggle to break free.

You might end up losing all your zest for life and your personal identity outside of your profession.

You could become someone who just works non-stop, without even knowing why. Is it for the money, or have you just become so used to working all the time? It’s important to ask yourself these questions and keep an eye on your overall health and happiness while pursuing your career.

So, let’s start from the basics: what exactly is burnout?

Burnout isn’t just one thing; it actually comes in three different types. Understanding these can help you identify and tackle burnout more effectively.

  1. Overexertion: This is when you’re overworking yourself, trying to cram too much into every day. It’s like running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace – eventually, you’re going to run out of steam.
  2. Depletion: Here, you’re not taking enough breaks to properly recharge. I’m not just talking about short tea breaks during your shift, but also the longer, more restful breaks that are essential for everyone now and then. Without them, you’re like a phone that’s always on 1% battery.
  3. Misalignment: This happens when you’re pouring your heart and soul into work that doesn’t bring you any joy or sense of achievement. It’s like pushing a boulder uphill only to find it rolls back down each time – it’s draining and demoralising.

Recognising which type of burnout you might be experiencing is the first step in addressing it and finding a way to bring back balance and fulfilment into your medical career and personal life.

Overexertion Burnout

Dr. Gail Gazelle, a renowned physician and coach, shared her own story of overexertion burnout. Despite a successful career, she found herself exhausted, struggling with the demands of patient care, administrative tasks, and her personal life. Her constant fatigue and inability to disconnect from work were classic signs.

Dr. Gazelle identified her burnout and tackled it by reducing her clinical hours, focusing on coaching, and setting strict boundaries for work-life balance.

How to identify it: Signs include constant fatigue, a foggy mind, difficulty in concentrating, and irritability.

Dealing with It: Address this by reassessing your workload and setting realistic goals. Implement effective time management strategies and ensure regular breaks. Pursue interests outside of medicine, maintaining your personal identity. Use annual leave for relaxation and hobbies unrelated to your profession.

Depletion Burnout

Dr. Pamela Wible, an advocate for physician wellness, highlighted the issue of depletion burnout. Overwhelmed by the emotional toll of her patients’ stories and the healthcare system’s pressures, she experienced a profound emotional and physical drain.

Dr. Wible addressed her burnout by taking a sabbatical, during which she reconnected with her passions and purpose in medicine.

How to identify it: Look for a loss of motivation, feeling disconnected from your job, physical symptoms like headaches, and indifference towards things you once enjoyed.

Dealing with It: Focus on self-care, including taking regular breaks and engaging in activities that rejuvenate you outside work. Establish boundaries between work and personal life, and use your off time to engage in personal growth and activities that bring you joy.

Misalignment Burnout

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman, a primary care physician, narrated her experience with misalignment burnout. Despite being in a respected profession, she felt a lack of fulfillment and questioned her impact.

This realization led her to explore other aspects of medicine, including public health and medical journalism, where she found greater alignment with her interests and values.

How to identify it: Feelings of emptiness or frustration with work, a sense of career stagnation, and questioning the impact of your work are key indicators.

Dealing with It: To combat misalignment, reflect on what aspects of your job you find meaningful and seek opportunities that align with your interests. Consider discussions with your supervisor about role adjustments and explore continuing education or new areas within medicine. Use your annual leave to explore new interests and engage in activities that remind you of your identity beyond your medical career.

So, the last message to you, as someone journeying through the demanding path of medical training, is to be vigilant about your well-being. Burnout is a multifaceted beast, and understanding its different forms – overexertion, depletion, and misalignment – is key to tackling it effectively.

Remember, it’s not just about working hard but also working smart. Keep an eye out for signs of burnout and take proactive steps to address them.

This might mean setting boundaries to manage overexertion, taking meaningful breaks to combat depletion, or realigning your career path to avoid misalignment.

Above all, don’t forget to nurture your personal identity beyond medicine. Use your annual leave wisely – not just for rest but for exploring passions and interests that remind you of who you are outside your profession.

Your journey in medicine is not just about being a great doctor; it’s about being a well-rounded, healthy, and fulfilled individual. Stay aware, stay balanced, and you’ll not only survive the rigors of medical training but thrive in them.

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