Why Doctor Burnout is Like a Big Mac

June 8, 2016
Mary Christ, MD, MBA

Burnout and McDonald's popular burger are a lot like - in that both can be avoided if you don't succumb to the temptation. Here's how.

Like many of my physician colleagues I have always been a type-A perfectionist who has a propensity to overcommit, as well as a seemingly morbid fear of saying "no" to requests for my time.  All of this changed, however, when I became a mother whose ability to be "all things to all people" was seriously challenged and my son became my top priority.  

As a pediatrician, I found myself in a nearly constant state of maternal guilt as I devoted most of my waking hours to other people's children rather than my little cherub.  My wakeup call finally came after a particularly grueling 24-hour on-call stint when I arrived home to discover that my 18-month old had been up all night screaming for "Mama" as he suffered with severe ear pain.  After checking his ears with my otoscope, I confirmed two things: 1) he had a rip-roaring otitis media and, 2) I had to reassess my priorities.

After some serious soul searching, I determined that I simply had to set clear boundaries around my time commitments.  I approached my time budget as I would my financial budget: There are only 24 hours in a day and those hours had to be prioritized.  By proactively creating my time commitment budget, it allowed me to recognize my limits and be better prepared to say "no" to demands for my time.

Over the years, my time commitment budget has served as an integral part of my personal preventive health plan since it allows me to maintain my physical and emotional health, while preventing burn-out.  I've encouraged my colleagues to view their time as another facet of their health -much as they would their diet or sleep- and proactively adopt a budget they periodically reassess.  

As with any other area of health maintenance, the first step toward improved "time health" is being cognizant of detrimental lifestyle factors such as over-commitment and the inability to say "no."  Once these factors are recognized, a preventive plan can be implemented to eliminate burn-out and improve overall well-being.  

Burnout is akin to a diet consisting of Big Macs and gallons of ice cream: both are detrimental to overall health, but can be readily avoided if you are aware of their harm and have a pre-determined plan to ensure you don't succumb to the temptation.