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Burnout: My Struggle & the 4 Questions that Help Me Stay on Track

By Heather S. Owen, MD, FACEP, TeamHealth Chief Safety & Quality Officer, EMC of TeamHealth Past President, Texas College of Emergency Medicine

Hello, September—it’s that time again! While many may immediately think of “back to school,” I’m actually referring to National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which is recognized during the month of September. Many of us have been impacted by suicide not only in our personal lives but in our professional lives. We are all aware of the staggering suicide rates in healthcare professionals and the increasing rates of physician burnout.

That’s why this month is a great time to take personal inventory. We each need to constantly re-evaluate where we are personally and professionally. Taking the time to really analyze where we are can be enlightening and add perspective. A great mentor of mine once led me through a valuable, thought-provoking exercise. Ask yourself four questions:

  1. What are your successes?
  2. What are you challenges?
  3. What keeps you up at night?
  4. What are you procrastinating about?

As I have done this exercise in times of success and difficulty, my answers have most certainly changed.  It has helped me recognize and embrace my successes, identify my current weaknesses, unveil stressors and identify opportunities for growth. It prompts great reflection and transparency. Each time, I can then initiate the change necessary to lead me back to my path.

There are many ups and downs in life and these fluctuations certainly affect how we feel about our personal and professional life. At one of my low points, I had just finished a busy night shift at 7:00 a.m. on the day after Christmas, and I frantically drove home to pluck my 5-year-old daughter out of bed. We rushed to arrive at a surgical center for her eighth eye surgery in four months. We arrived at 7:12 a.m. and the staff at the desk glared at me as I carried her through the lobby in her nightgown. Twelve minutes late – the staff did not miss the opportunity to chide me for being late.

As I stood there listening to all the reasons I should have been early, I was empty. I had barely slept in over 48-hours and was 16-weeks pregnant with my fourth child. My family was leaving that morning to go on our annual ski trip without us, and I was anxious and devastated to be there once again trying to save my daughter’s vision. I was simply empty. I remember that morning like it was yesterday and reflect on it frequently. I was struggling to meet my professional responsibilities while needing to be with my family more. It meant I had stretched myself too thin and was unable to give anything to anyone. Empty.

Many envision a physician suffering from burnout as an endpoint, but I view it as a fluctuating continuum. I have most certainly exhibited signs and symptoms classically defined as burnout several times in my career, especially those months as we tried to save my daughter’s vision. However, I would not actually say I have suffered significant burnout. I attribute that to the incredible support of my colleagues. I have also come to understand that those difficult moments do not define my career or the joy I derive from my job. There are times I feel more frustration than joy, but I always find more joy. It is truly a privilege to care for others, and there is great gratification in the ability to alleviate another’s suffering, even when you are struggling yourself.

I challenge you to identify what is preventing you from feeling fulfilled, both in your personal and professional life. I challenge you to lean on those around you, give yourself grace and welcome the support of the team around you. We are all in this together.

Looking for resources to combat burnout? Explore the TeamHealth suicide prevention page and join our efforts to #SpeakUpSaveLives19 during the month of September.