Burnout is a term that’s loosely applied to pretty much any condition causing chronic exhaustion as a direct result of one’s working style, content or quantity, but which may overlap, lead to or mimic other conditions such as anxiety, depression and even resigning from a job. But before taking sick leave (the trouble with that is that in true burnout it has a tendency to become a recurrent pattern), resigning or leaping to a radical career change, there are things that one can do to reduce or eliminate burnout. The challenges appear to be two-fold: to take the required steps whilst feeling as if one is only just coping, and to ask for help - something that GPs seem very reluctant to do.
Recharging one’s internal energy in order to feel at peace and in balance with oneself is one of life's essential skills, and has been talked about for millennia. Plato’s theory of education states:
Unwise eating and drinking, the first effects of gymnastic exercise, sexual indulgence, overwork of any kind, especially associated with a sedentary life; all produce upsets of one sort or another, disturbances of the bodily equilibrium...
So it sounds like little has changed in over 2000 years.
A good description of burnout can be found on patient.info and I suspect reading this will be painful for many doctors. However I find some of the suggestions on how to go about actively reversing burnout, or how to prevent or treat it, a little unrealistic.
For example, “Manage the stressors that contribute to occupational burnout”. But if you could do that, you wouldn’t have got burnout in the first place. Or “Spend time away from work doing things that are enjoyable”. Sadly, the trouble with burnout is that a bit like depression - it pervades all aspects of life.
But the advice to “Assess interests, skills and passions. An honest assessment can help to decide whether an alternative job should be considered, such as one that's less demanding or one that better matches interests and core values.” is eminently sensible, although requires some form of career planning, support and unbiased independent feedback on how to approach the burnout descent, also bearing in mind that if a person is so deep into the burnout spiral that they have no energy left, they are unlikely to find the energy for career planning either.
So how to break this Catch 22 situation? In early or mild cases, looking at the above might well spark some ideas and help people to identify whether or not they have incipient or frank burnout.
What may be needed in some cases however is a “personalised recharging action plan”. I would love to see more emphasis on recharging, burnout avoidance and self preservation training within GP training schemes and perhaps at medical school too.
I continue on what to do about recharging in the second part of this article, but am aware that this may precipitate some uncomfortable realisations about burnout, so if you feel that you need help before next month, please start with our ebook.