Burnout – What does it feel like, and when is big change necessary?

Burnout is a big topic of conversation in physician circles these days. There is growing demand for physician wellness resources, from yoga and meditation to tips on how to complete clinic documentation more efficiently.

But even though we are all talking about it, I always thought that burnout was for other people, not me. After a few years of working in chaotic, unethical, abusive, unsupportive clinical environments, I became increasingly burdened with feelings of numbness, loss of empathy, anger, pessimism, fatigue, and a general sense that the world was a grey place, and the glass was half empty all the time. I felt dissociation when I was at work – I would leave myself at the door in the morning, work in this numb tunnel for 10 hours, then escape out the other side after I left work. I did not bring my personality to work – I was just acting like someone else. I was not fully present for 80 hours a week. I struggled to remember to look up at the sky and notice the beautiful clouds or the birds chirping in the trees. Things just looked and felt gray. My negativity strained my relationship and every aspect of my wellness. Even on the hours that I wasn’t working, I was always ruminating and worrying about work. I was never free. My toxic workplace was taking up space in my brain rent-free at all hours of the day.

Then in 2019, I finally said to hell with it, and I resigned from my job without a clear back-up plan. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the bills in the long term, but I knew I had to get out. I told myself that I would never practice clinically again. That I was done being a doctor.

It was a few months later, after a lot of mental recuperation and days spent attending to meaningful personal projects, that I was able to look back on this painful experience with renewed perspective. I looked back and realized that I had burned out. That I had experienced the moral injury that usually accompanies burnout in physicians. I was astonished at how I, as a trained diagnostician, was unable to diagnose my own burnout while I was going through it. So, I realized that others must have similar issues with identifying their experience as burnout. And there must be many people stuck and trapped in burnout situations, suffering in silence with helplessness, lack of agency and lack of energy to imagine any other option.

Burnout is an incredibly painful experience. It can happen in all occupations. The main factors associated with burnout in a workplace are poor work-life balance, toxic managers or coworkers, unrealistic job requirements, no employee recognition or reward, poor support and isolation.
Burnout happens to the very best of us: It happens to the most sensitive, the most soulful, the emotional and feeling among us. It happens to those who started off bright-eyed on a career path through which we believed we may save the world and make a difference. It happens when we confront the reality of certain professions, the dark underbelly where financial or power motives conflict with our values of service, integrity, helping others and moral fulfillment. And burnout happens to us “truthtellers” who, for one reason or another – perhaps a difficult childhood – are not able to suppress our knowing of truth and reality and are not able to be silenced or pacified.

As I have moved forward along my journey and created a truly spectacular life that blends both a rewarding coaching practice as well as part-time clinical practice on my own terms, I have found it incredibly rewarding to work with clients who are experiencing burnout and moral injury in their work. I have lived it, I’ve been to the other side, and I can tell you that it is always possible to reinvent your life and realign with your values and purpose to create a life where you wake looking forward to every single day.

It is incredible to work with clients who are experiencing burnout. Because inside every person is a truth-telling warrior, a person who cannot unsee the truth, a person who refuses to be persuaded to work in a way that defies their values or purpose. My work with clients experiencing burnout centers on rediscovering one’s own internal motivators by doing a deep values assessment and a “Who Am I” exercise to bring voice back to the many beautiful facets of my client that might have become dull with the debris of their toxic work environment. I also perform an ELI Assessment, a research-backed tool that helps my client rediscover the light within to stand up and lead, influence and inspire those in their professional organization and personal lives.

If you are experiencing mental, emotional or physical exhaustion, low mood, low engagement, compassion fatigue, loss of empathy, anger, a sense of greyness about the future, or dread about returning to work on a Monday, you may be experiencing burnout. And it’s important to call a spade a spade because this is an incredible opportunity to reinvent yourself and rediscover all the incredible aspects of yourself that give you a sense of purpose, fill your cup and make you whole. It’s through becoming reacquainted with who you really are that you become more clear, powerful, and purposeful, and you can envision and execute big changes in your life to bring your work and personal relationships into alignment with your true values.

If you think you might be experiencing burnout, you probably are. Take this opportunity now. Click “Send” on an email to a coach. Book a discovery call. Start exploring. We have one life and we all can experience joy on a daily basis. Start your journey today!