By Beth Shaughnessy, MD, PhD
As the deadline approached for this blog, I found myself preparing to go to Las Vegas for a conference, my mind numb with encroaching burnout. I knew the signs—chronic fatigue, growing apathy, lack of alertness, decreased ability to organize and be efficient. I trained in the era of no restrictions on work hours; hospitals used residents to fill in the gaps when they lacked personnel in transportation and phlebotomy, especially at charity hospitals. Burnout used to be a state of being back then, but it didn’t have a label.
I love what I do. But I face intermittent burnout from being in a field that mandates high volume to meet the RVUs benchmark—breast surgery. This is usually manageable, but randomly cases may pile up as patients return from neoadjuvant chemotherapy and I must mesh these women into the operative schedule with the new ones referred and the emergency ones. There is a modicum of randomness to the referral intensity, although I can rely on certain times of the year to be more intense. This relative randomness of work intensity creates an intermittent discord in the general flow of our lives.
We can get so focused on providing the needed care to our patients that we begin to lose track of caring for ourselves. I just want to sleep; I calculate the years to retirement. I realized I was in a funk based on my husband’s behavior relative to discussions with him, or relative to my lack of discussion—I have come to recognize the disgruntled interaction from him, reflecting back on my own behavior. I guess the signs were there at the office as well.
Recognizing the situation is half the battle. Immediately, I start to examine my surroundings and my practice to reduce and simplify. In my homelife, what events can be canceled or missed? I make sure that I incorporate those activities from which I derive pleasure and renewal.
In my past life, I used to do Pilates in preparation for the dance season in high school and college. It was an easy choice to join a mat Pilates class following pregnancy, restoring so much energy and social interaction! And that morphed into yoga, which I still actively practice 17 years later.
Over the long run, I have learned from my husband and my son. When planning travel for a conference, I reacquaint myself with friends who live there, or friends that are going to the conference. Arrange for a dinner or an event to share stories, in order to remind yourself to enjoy your life. If it is a city I know well, maybe I will arrive a half day or full day before, order to reacquaint myself with the city and what it has to offer. Take the meeting in Las Vegas, for instance. I arranged for a hot stone massage—my favorite—and participated in a yoga class. Serendipitously, I met another AWS surgeon whom I follow on Twitter before yoga began. Little things like seeking out an art museum or strolling along a quaint shopping district (when there is time) can make my day.
Ultimately, do not forget to be kind to yourself and to those who are significant to you. Plan that special vacation to get away, shift gears, see the world from a different perspective! You will return, relaxed and refreshed, ready to tackle what the day may bring. So stop and catch your breath, recognize the signs and step back for a moment. It will make it so much easier to step forward.
Beth Shaughnessy, MD, PhD is a professor of surgery at the University of Cincinnati. She was born and raised in the Chicago area, spending her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and returning to the University of Illinois at Chicago for medical school and graduate studies. She completed residency at the University of Illinois Hospital and Clinics, with rotations at Cook County Hospital, the West Side VA Medical Center, and Michael Reese Medical Center. Dr. Shaughnessy also completed a fellowship in surgical oncology at the City of Hope National Medical Center. She enjos academic projects and writing, in addition to singing in a choir (first soprano), gardening, practicing yoga, and riding her bike, & being a wife and mother.
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With my sisters in County Kerry, Ireland.
With the family in Petra, Jordan