First times

Burnout

Location: UK
Audience: Junior doctors Medical students
Last reviewed: 20 June 2022
Topics: Your wellbeing

By Joe Home

Burnout is the physical or emotional exhaustion resulting from chronic workplace stress. It can have symptoms from generalised fatigue to depression and insomnia. As a clinician this could include feelings of difficulty in clinical decision making, feeling you are unable to empathise with colleagues and patients, and a reduced sense of the value you bring to your team.

During my F3 year I completed a leadership fellowship, and deep feelings of imposter syndrome led me take on more and more responsibilities. It was an attempt to prove – to myself and to my organisation – that I was adding sufficient value to warrant taking a clinician away from clinical services during a time of unprecedented pressures. As I developed unsustainable habits, including working in my spare time and cancelling social plans to prioritise work, I found I was unable to switch off, sleep or truly relax.

When people close to me pointed out that I was exhibiting all the symptoms of burnout, I initially ignored it. After all, we are consistently told medical careers are hard work; if I was burning out, did this mean people thought I couldn’t hack it? It was only after several months of supportive conversations with friends and colleagues that I was able to step back and objectively recognise what I was doing and begin to mitigate it.

If I was burning out, did this mean people thought I couldn’t hack it?
Joe Home, junior doctor

Lessons I learned to tackle burnout:

Be kind to yourself.

It is difficult to show care and compassion to patients and colleagues if you are not first kind to yourself. Colleagues often describe prioritising patient care and the needs of the department over their own needs; while this can be required at times, it shouldn’t be done to the point of exhaustion, depression or burnout.

It is okay to say no.

Reflect on whether additional projects and responsibilities are things you have capacity for and whether they are worth spending your time and energy on. When I started working, I thought being a good trainee meant saying yes to everything, and senior colleagues advised taking every opportunity that came my way. Saying no initially can feel difficult, but can help to prioritise the things – work or personal – that are most important. Senior colleagues usually respect this, and it doesn’t mean they will not involve you in the future.

Seek support.

It sounds easy, but having open conversations with friends and colleagues is often one of the most challenging things to do. In my experience, open discussion can reveal members of your team that can relate, and help you process the situation. Additionally, senior colleagues and managers often have scope to offer support or reduce workload in other ways, such as changes to working patterns.

Recognise that burnout is not a ‘you’ problem – it is a system problem.

Research suggests burnout is caused by the environments we work in, and 40.3% of NHS staff experience symptoms of it, according to a 2019 survey. It is often framed as a personal problem – you might hear talk of improving resilience, lectures on wellbeing, or yoga sessions – but blame shouldn’t be placed on the individual. For all its positives, the NHS can be a challenging place to work. Burning out does not mean you have failed, instead it is a reflection of the huge challenges NHS staff face daily.

It’s important to recognise the symptoms, not just for your own mental state but for the quality of care you can bring to your patients. Without first being kind to ourselves it can be very challenging to be kind to patients.

 

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