Just as physician burnout rates were starting to decline, along comes a pandemic that has caused considerable stress for those in the healthcare field.
A Medscape 2019 online survey showed a drop in physician burnout rates from 46% in 2014 to 42% in 2019. According to a January 2020 article on the American Medical Association website, a burnout study by the AMA, Mayo Clinic and the Stanford University School of Medicine had also shown declining burnout numbers.
Dealing with a pandemic or another crisis, such as a natural disaster that causes multiple injuries or health conditions, however, has the potential to lead to burnout symptoms.
Rachel Brown, MBBS
“As physicians, you can’t hide from a medical crisis,” says Rachel Brown, MBBS, a physician and psychiatrist who serves as Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences with The University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.
As a crisis medical situation often means longer hours or frustration with limited resources, taking some time to “uncouple” from the mental and emotional toll of work is important, Dr. Brown says. For physicians, looking after their mental health is as important as caring for others and can bolster one’s ability to return to providing patient care.
“If a lot of what you do is cognitive or emotional, exercise can be a real good contrast,” she says. Taking a walk can be a simple way to incorporate exercise. Dr. Brown says she often likes to listen to an audiobook while walking to help her more fully unplug from work.
Engaging in a creative activity, like listening or playing music, can also be helpful because it stimulates another part of the brain, she says. Meditation and journaling are also good activities to relieve stress.
“It’s very individual,” says Dr. Brown about what activity a physician should pursue to help with his or her mental health. “You need to know what is most helpful to you. It may not be the thing you want to do, but it is a thing you should do.” For example, sitting on the couch eating chocolate may sound like a good escape but a walk offers more positive benefits, she says.
The Kansas Medical Society has compiled a list of resources to help physicians maintain their health during the COVID-19 pandemic. The list, which appears on its website (kmsonline.org/COVID-19), includes links to exercise and meditation resources. For example, Headspace, an online and mobile app meditation program, is offering healthcare professionals with a National Provider Identifier number free access for the remainder of 2020.
The KMS resource list also provides some journaling prompts for physicians who want to make a record of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Dr. Brown also stresses the importance of seeking professional help to deal with the effects of a crisis or personal mental health issues.
Crisis and emergency counseling are available 24/7 through the following resources:
National Suicide Prevention hotline: 800-273-8255 or chat online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat
KMS Professionals’ Health Program: kmsonline.org/PHP