Gratitude: How It Can Decrease Physician Burnout

by | May 7, 2014 | Physician Burnout, Physician Resilience

Gratitude is something you may not pay much attention to. It’s easy to take the good things in life for granted. If you’re like most people, the focus is often on the glass half full, on the things you don’t have or the things you want to be different. Both internally and externally, you can be overwhelmed on a daily basis by negativity, challenges to overcome, and by all that seems to be going wrong.

For many, it is those moments where something occurs that shake you out of the bubble you live in, and brings you into the awareness of true gratitude. For example, when you hear about a bad outcome, a colleague diagnosed with advanced cancer, or a friend’s teenager getting into a significant car crash. For that moment, you may find yourself overcome with gratitude so intense that it overshadows all negatives. You realize how fortunate you truly are, and experience a strong wave of relief and calm, thankful that you and your loved ones are safe and in good health. In that moment, your worries melt away. Perhaps you tell yourself that you’ll always feel appreciation for the good things you have in your life. But, no sooner have you had this realization then your focus shifts to something in your life that you find wanting.

Yet, if you can tap into these brief interludes of gratitude you may find a powerful antidote to many negative states of mind, including worries, fears, resentment, and anguish.  The power of authentic gratitude can give you centeredness and balance that staves off feelings of overwhelm. The power of thankfulness is almost like a magic wand!  And, it doesn’t even matter what you’re grateful for.

Research shows how gratitude can benefit your life

How do we know that gratitude is so powerful? Much research has been done to determine the effects of gratitude.

For example, a 2009 study of 400 adults found that grateful people had better sleep quality, were able to fall asleep faster at night, and also had less daytime tiredness. A 2013 study of 1000 Swiss adults found that gratitude correlated with improved psychological health that then translated into greater likelihood of engaging in health-promoting activities.  There are dozens of other studies, well catalogued at a University of California, Berkeley site.

Give gratitude a try

What are some ways to see the benefits of gratitude in your life? One way is when you find yourself fixated on a worry, ask yourself what you’re grateful for right in that moment. Stop for 10 seconds and focus on that sense of gratitude. Another way is to start or end every day with a gratitude list. Ask yourself: What 3 things am I grateful for today? Try each of these exercises for 7 days in a row. What do you notice? Any decrease in your sense of 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.


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.