You don't have to look very far (or speak to many physicians) before encountering a well-worn phrase: physician burnout. In fact, it appears to be fairly ubiquitous in this day and age of practicing medicine. And of course, much has written and said about strategies for preventing burnout — from achieving work-life balance, to pampering oneself, to engaging in outside interests, and to considering a different medical practice model (like joining a large multi-specialty group). In my dialogues with a variety of physicians, I often hear a similar concept as they complain about the myriad challenges of practicing medicine in this current environment: "This is not why I went into medicine!"
Sadly, medicine starts to feel more like work than it does a passion or a calling. If you are one of those physicians that want to regain that passion for medicine that brought you to the field in the first place, read on.
While there may not be much you or any other physician can do to alter the trajectory that medicine is taking, there are some strategies you can employ to get back to why you went into medicine. Studies have shown that, regardless of profession, intrinsic motivators typically have a more compelling impact on job satisfaction than do extrinsic factors (such as money). So one approach to achieving greater contentment and joy from your profession is to remember why you chose medicine and strive to align your values with your work. Because what you value most serves as those intrinsic motivators which will bring you the fulfillment you are seeking.
Here are some simple steps to get you started:
1. Begin by noticing what brings you joy and satisfaction. This can be challenging — often our thoughts are filled with all the negatives and we forget to notice that which is most rewarding. At least once a day (but preferably more often if you can), stop and appreciate (and if you can, write down) what you enjoyed about your day, especially while you were at work. Reflect back on times during the day when you felt "in the zone" — time flew by, you felt immersed in what you were doing, you felt a sense of joy, excitement, confidence, and/or a connection with another human being. Notice what comes up for you and detect themes. For example, maybe you identify that your greatest joy comes from your one-on-one interactions with patients, problem solving, or a sense of competency at what you do.
2. Define what matters to you most (building upon step 1 above). Realize that this step may occur over a few "sessions" of contemplation. It is important to create the right setting in which to engage in this exercise. Find a time when you feel adequately rested, are in a quiet setting, won't be interrupted, and you feel receptive to a little introspection. Have a pen and notebook handy, so you can capture your thoughts on paper. Ask yourself the following questions (Don't stop at the first answer — keep asking until you get to the core of what matters most to you.):
• What makes me happy?
• Why did I choose medicine?
• What do I find most gratifying during my work?
• If everything about my practice was taken away and I could only keep those things that matter most to me, what would remain?
3. Determine ways to align your values with your work. Once you are clearer on what makes you happy, pay attention to those experiences. Typically, they are there in your day-to-day life, yet you have been so aware of what's not making you happy, you stop noticing. Intentionally and actively paying attention to the positive will have a dramatic impact on your feelings of contentment. Research on happiness finds that people that spend more time focused on the present moment (referred to as "direct experience") are significantly happier.
4. Identify simple steps you can take to add in more of what matters most to you. For example, if those one-on-one interactions are important, and you can't take more time with each patient, be more intentional about the quality of your interactions. Or if problem solving is satisfying for you, find opportunities to look for solutions — whether they be patient-related, practice-related, or people-related.
While the steps above will not "fix" the challenges that make your practice feel like work, they will greatly increase the ratio of positive to negative, which has the effect of increasing satisfaction and fulfillment. Let yourself experience the passion of practicing the art of healing.