To mitigate burnout, remember the things that used to fascinate and inspire you before you became a clinician.
Most of us are in healthcare because we have a passion for what we do. We want to make a difference—to help, to heal, and in academic settings, to contribute to the body of knowledge that can further those goals. Our work is challenging, exciting, and all-consuming. The reward is seeing our patients get better or continue to function and live their best lives despite chronic illnesses.
The past two years the pandemic has made such outcomes more elusive, and the demands on our time and energy many times greater than we’ve ever experienced. Burnout is common. For many of us, our days have been about survival—ours as well as the patients. How do we reconnect with joy in our lives?
We must first give ourselves permission to look for it. It’s ok to look for joy outside of work. Not just ok—when work is as stressful and exhausting as it has been for many recently, it’s imperative. We must look for joy in the small things. As we tend to be driven “Type A” people, it can be hard for us to approach anything in a small way. However, that’s the key to restoring balance in our lives.
I find it helpful to look at how a child sees things. For them, the world is new, and all is fascinating. They have few preconceived ideas about how things are and really look at things. As we age, there are fewer surprises, and most things we encounter in our daily lives are familiar to us. We don’t usually think about them, and miss a lot. We need to train ourselves to notice the quotidian again and find joy in it. We also need to remind ourselves to challenge assumptions we make based on past negative experiences.
Notice the seasons. This morning, for instance, the first soft green leaf buds appeared on the trees around our house, and the Golden Creeping Jenny has begun to emerge in the yard. Seeing this brings me a moment of joy and the hope that winter is over. It might not be, and that’s ok too. If we’re not done with the frost yet, we’ll get to see these green beginnings of spring all over again in a week or two. And thinking about it that way is a cognitive behavioral strategy that reframes a negative perception (“oh dear, more frost is coming”) with the reminder that the young buds will come back, and we’ll get to enjoy them once more.
This takes conscious effort. It takes conscious effort, too, to stay in touch with the people who are important to us, which also helps keep balance in our lives. Some of us are lucky enough to count our colleagues among our best friends. However, this past couple of years of videoconferencing instead of seeing each other regularly at work has disrupted that important social connection. As we enter the “post-pandemic” era, we may need to make an effort to re-establish the interpersonal connections that keep us grounded.
And finally, we need to re-connect with our innate creativity, which is part of being human. We can imagine something other than the reality in front of us and create something new out of that imagining. Many of us have channeled all of this into our work, usually with great results, and it can help to re-visit our sources of work-related inspiration when we find ourselves struggling.
But the pandemic has shown us that we need to save some of that creativity for our lives outside of work. We’re all born artists, but we tend to set aside non-work-related creativity in the pursuit of our careers. This is a good time to remember the things that used to fascinate and inspire us before we became who we are now, and to discover new sources of inspiration. We’ll still be who we are now, but healthier.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.