How to Respond to Physician Burnout in a Colleague

by | Jun 12, 2017 | Physician Burnout

Dealing with physician burnout in a colleague

Two hours of administrative tasks for every hour with patients. A proliferation of non-physician administrators deciding how the day is going to run. Little in our training about how to cope with uncertainty and change. It’s no surprise that physician burnout rates are approaching 60%. Despite being so common, when we see a colleague struggling with physician burnout, we may not know what to say. Responding appropriately can bring someone back from burnout and may even save a life. Here are some tips to help with physician burnout in a colleague.


Approach the situation with compassion

Burnout is often referred to as erosion of the soul, and for good reason. With it comes a great sense of despair, hopelessness, and isolation. We lose our perspective.

Often there is no better remedy than the kindness of a colleague, someone who has walked in our shoes and knows what we’re experiencing. Approach the colleague with the empathetic aim of letting them know that you care about them, you’ve noticed that they are struggling, and you’re there for them. Afraid of saying the wrong thing? Here are some ways to convey your concern.

“I can see you’ve had a rough week.”
“I’m concerned about you.”
“I get why you’re feeling this way.”
“I don’t have answers but I want you to know I’m here and I care about you.”
“You deserve to feel better.”
“I know these feelings will pass.”


Normalize the experience

With burnout comes a sense of personal inadequacy. Everyone else seems to be coping with all the stress. What’s wrong with me? Tell your colleague that what they’re experiencing is normal and that many physicians are having the same feelings. Let them know there’s nothing wrong with them. Make it clear that these harsh feelings do not mean that they are a failure. And, no matter what they’re thinking, that experiencing physician burnout is a normal response to the stressors of modern practice and doesn’t mean they’re in the wrong career.


Don’t problem solve or give advice

As physicians, we’re conditioned to fix whatever problem the person in front of us has. It is quite literally what we are trained to do. But with burnout, we need to suspend our desire to problem-solve. Instead of doing something, we need to focus on simply being present with a colleague’s suffering.

On that same note, we also need to avoid giving advice. Giving advice sends an implicit message that the person doesn’t have the inner resources to solve their problem. Not only that, but the last thing someone wants to hear when they’re low on energy, overwhelmed by demands, and disconnected from any sense of meaning is “I know how to solve your problem, here’s what you should do.”  Simply listening without suggesting any action can help someone in burnout begin the critical step of gaining perspective on their situation.


Help them connect with their accomplishments

When we’re in burnout, we’re focused on everything that’s wrong, with the workplace and with ourselves. We’re disconnected from meaning and purpose. Positives slide off us like Teflon and negatives stick as if attached by Velcro. Whatever our strengths and accomplishments may be, we believe we have none. It’s critical to find a way to reconnect with the things we are accomplishing.

Ask your colleague if they’d consider keeping a running list of three things they accomplish every day. This simple exercise can provide ballast against the pull to inadequacy and negativity, and potentially help relieve some of the symptoms of physician burnout.


Let them know seeking help is not a sign of weakness

We learn early in training that seeking help is a sign of weakness. We’re the head of the team and we’re supposed to have all the answers. Yet, we can’t solve every problem by ourselves (no one can.) Reassure your colleague that asking for help is a sign of health, not weakness. Recommend that they speak to loved ones and other colleagues. Encourage them to seek coaching or other professional help.
While you can’t change the external landscape, know that applying these tips can make a big difference in a colleague’s ability to see a way forward.

In summary, remind yourself to listen compassionately. Normalize their experience. Avoid the temptation to give advice or problem-solve. Help them see their strengths and accomplishments.  Let them know that seeking help is often vital and is not a sign of weakness. Reassure that they can find a way to meet the intense demands of practice with much less anguish.

Get more resources on 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.