Elizabeth Scott, therapist and author of an upcoming book called "8 Keys to Stress Management," makes a living telling people how to manage stress. It's her belief that vacations are an important outlet. "People think of vacations as unaffordable luxuries," she says. "But considering the increased risk for health issues and burnout from chronic stress, those risks are a lot costlier than a few days away to recharge."
Who hasn't come to the end of the work year with a pile of vacation hours accrued? Physicians are some of the worst at breaking away. Scott says doctors face job stressors more intense than those of most other jobs; the types of stressors most related to physician burnout are high pressure, long hours, and heavy consequences for mistakes.
Phillip Hemphill, director of the Professional Enhancement Program at Pine Grove Treatment Center in Hattiesburg, Miss., echoes the fact that physicians find it tough to take time off.
"Being a physician carries a unique privilege, so part of their training itself is problematic," he says. "It is extremely competitive, and individuals must be comfortable with making tough decisions, all while suppressing emotions. There are very high — nearly superhuman — expectations from everyone involved in a physician's world, and it can result in self-neglect."
Time for a timeout?
How do you know when it's time to ditch the office for awhile?
Hemphill says there are clear signs indicating the need for a dose of time off. For example:
• Missing more deadlines
• Not managing boundaries well in terms of time, money, and work productivity
• An uptick in conflicts with coworkers, including a rising need to blame others
Walter Gaman, physician and copartner of Executive Medicine of Texas, located in Southlake, Texas, offers a few more warning signs that it's vacation time.
"Feeling overwhelmed occasionally is part of being a professional, but when it feels like you're in over your head with things that don't normally bother you, it's time to back off a bit," Gaman says. Anger, too, is a red flag. "Feeling aggravation toward a patient is one thing," he says. "But if every single person you see is driving you crazy or if you feel enraged over a minor situation, like a patient who is late, time off is definitely in order."
At home, becoming more short-tempered than usual with your spouse and other family members, or experiencing a lack of interest in sexual intimacy can quite possibly be remedied by a little vacation therapy. Another reason for practicing good vacation hygiene, Gaman says, is "When you're in this state of mental exhaustion and don't go for a break — your business, health, and marriage will suffer and you're at greater risk for malpractice."
Scott backs up that claim, citing a 2009 study published in JAMA by Mayo Clinic researchers from the Department of Medicine Program on Physician Well-Being. The study of more than 300 internal medicine residents concluded that higher levels of fatigue and distress are associated with self-perceived medical errors.
Vacations are not one-size-fits-all therapy. One man's exhilarating excursion is another's frenetic travel fiasco. If you're in a rut, choosing the same place and time to get away each year, stop and think again. What do your routine vacation choices say about you?