Combat Physician Burnout: Stress Strengths, don’t Strengthen Stress

by | Apr 19, 2018 | Physician Burnout, Physician Resilience

Focusing on Your Weaknesses Won’t Make You Stronger

In this week’s post, I break down why physicians should Stress Strengths rather than Strengthen Stress in order to combat physician burnout.

Last week, I was speaking with a medical director at a large practice who was telling me that he couldn’t understand why the physicians in his group were having trouble getting their charts done on time. I asked him what sorts of strategies he’d employed to try and make the situation better, and he told me he had:

  1. Issued email warnings
  2. told physicians that their pay would be docked if they didn’t do better, and 
  3. posted comparison charts of members of the group. He could not fathom why the performance wasn’t improving.

I also recently sat in on a meeting with a client of mine (an internist) and her non-physician supervisor. To my disappointment, the entire meeting was focused on patient wait times, an area where the supervisor determined she was not meeting targets. Not one word was spoken about the internist’s improved Press Ganey scores, the gains she’d made in consistently starting her day on time, and the positive comments staff had made about her performance. At the end of the meeting, my client broke down in tears.

How can anyone expect me to succeed when all they do is point out my shortcomings?”

Physicians are hyper-focused on their own flaws; we don’t need a supervisor to point them out for us. Negative reinforcement is an old and outdated leadership approach. A person’s path to growth and improvement lies in mobilizing their areas of strength.

Meeting with “the big bully” and seeing the “wall of shame” erode self-esteem and don’t lead to improvement. If you’ve been on the receiving end, you have no difficulty understanding how damaging these strategies can be.

What Research Shows About Negative Reinforcement

Gallup conducted a study when they analyzed over one million work teams. They found that only 9% of employees who are forced to work in an area of weakness are engaged, while 74% of their counterparts who are allowed to work in an area that uses their strengths are engaged. This isn’t a minor difference either; the gap is staggering.

Engaged employees tend to be more productive and happier at their work. One of the easiest ways to increase employee engagement is to help them align with their strengths.

Let’s try a simple exercise:

Think of a task you’ve been putting off completing. Imagine that you’re sitting down to do it right now. For 60 seconds, think about all the ways you believe you’re inadequate to get this task done:

  • I’m not smart enough
  • I’ll never get this all done
  • I’m not as disciplined as others
  • I’m a great procrastinator

Don’t hold back, pick your poison!

Now, mindfully, check-in with yourself. Rate your level of motivation to do the task on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = no motivation at all and 10 = let me at it!

Next, switch your focus to all the ways you’re more than adequate:

  • I’ve gotten this type of thing before
  • I am accomplished and well-regarded
  • I’m good at this type of task
  • Even when I procrastinate, I always cross the finish line

Sweeten the pot a little more by giving yourself an extra 30 seconds to think how good you’ll feel once the task is off your list.

Now check-in with yourself again.

Want to combat physician burnout symptoms but not sure what your strengths are?

While you may be used to focusing on your weaknesses, in your roles of physician and family member I can assure you that you have many. You simply could not have made it this far without them.

An easy way to find your strengths is to complete a basic personality traits test like the one provided by the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychology.

How this relates to physician burnout combat

I’ve written about physician leadership and burnout in the past, and it’s clear that a deficit, weakness-based focus, and burnout go hand in hand.

If we want to avoid burnout or find out how to combat physician burnout, the strategies I mention in this article are key:

  • Stop focusing on what went wrong and start focusing on what went right
  • Help others see their strengths

Want to learn how you can reduce, deal with physician burnout, and promote healthy physician leadership?

Get my Anti-Burnout Physician Leadership checklist for further FREE tips on how to combat physician burnout.

  1. Embrace uncertainty

When you stop and think about it, uncertainty and change are the only things that are certain. Impermanence is one of the basic laws of our world.

After all, everything changes. Our relationships change. Our kids grow up and change. Our bodies age and change. Our environments change. Our planet changes.

All too often, however, we forget this basic truth. We somehow expect things to be predictable and stable.

The problem is that this expectation sets us up for difficulty. It leaves us struggling unnecessarily when something shifts. It adds a layer of suffering above and beyond that caused by all the VUCA around us.

What I’m getting at is that we have a choice. We can meet uncertainty with reactivity or we can meet it with mindful understanding.

More than meditating on a remote mountainside, mindfulness helps us have the calm, steadiness, and clarity we need to work constructively with all the change and uncertainty.

At the same time, while we can find ourselves resisting change, we can remind ourselves that it does not have to mean something bad! Just take a moment right now to think of all the difficulties you have faced in your life and work that are now resolved and far behind you. This can help you see how change has actually been quite the positive.

  1. Respond to complexity with compassion

Even knowing that change is the only thing that is certain, it can still be difficult to weather. Living in such a VUCA time is difficult. You deserve compassion for managing all the challenges.

With mindful awareness, we can bring ourselves compassion for what we’re going through. There is increasing evidence that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to stress and even burnout. From where I sit, I think that it is actually one of the most powerful medicinals available to us.

  1. Take purposeful pauses

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on within and around us. We tune in and pay attention to our experience. We learn to utilize our breath to take us out of the fears, worries, stories, and preoccupations our minds are so good at generating about what might come next, and bring us back to the present moment. Here in the present, we leave that overly activated limbic state and can experience a sense of calm.

A pause also serves to allow our prefrontal cortex to come online. It creates a critically important space between our emotional response and conscious, intentional action.

Once we have paused, we can then see more clearly that fear had taken hold. 

With a pause, we become the witness of our experience as opposed to the one trapped by it.

  1. View VUCA as opportunity

I don’t know about you, but I can find myself reacting to the VUCA environment with something of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, I am telling myself things like ‘it shouldn’t be this way’ and ‘why is this happening?’

When I can utilize mindful awareness, I can see that I’ve boxed myself in with a fixed mindset. I can challenge myself to grow. By grow, I mean challenging myself to see whatever difficulty I’m experiencing as an opportunity to learn.

Here again, mindfulness again throws us a lifeline. Mindful awareness involves leaning into curiosity.

I can flip the script and ask myself:

What can I learn from this experience?

How can I use this to be a better version of myself?

How can I help others cope in this VUCA environment?

What do I want to look back and see about how I acted?

In summary, while VUCA is definitely the order of the day in healthcare and beyond, you don’t have to succumb. You don’t have to live in fear. There are constructive actions you can take to help you cope with uncertainty, build calm in chaos, and even thrive in chaos and VUCA. While we can’t control much that is contributing to the VUCA time, with mindfulness we can control how we respond to it.

I hope you’ll try out these 4 mindfulness strategies as I have seen them help countless people. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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To learn more about how mindfulness coaching can help you cope with this VUCA time, please reach out for a complimentary consult.

6 Free Resources To Help You During COVID19 And Beyond.

  1. 14-day meditation series 
  2. Imposter No More PDF
  3. Resilience Book Chapter
  4. Leading In Crisis PDF
  5. Balance To Burnout PDF
  6. 30-minute consult

Take advantage of one or more of these valuable resources created for clinicians and non-clinicians.