Avoiding burnout: A physician shares self-compassion strategies for provider wellness

By Dr. Rishikesh S. Chavan, pediatric oncologist and medical director of the blood and bone marrow transplant program at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children’s

Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and a rapidly evolving medical landscape has put added pressure and stress on the healthcare workers braving the front lines. This is why it’s more important than ever to recognize signs of burnout in yourself and your colleagues, and essential that we as physicians practice self-compassion.

As physicians juggle their position as a healthcare provider, possibly the head of their household, and many other roles, it can be almost unnatural for physicians to think of themselves and their own needs.

But as the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Physicians can’t do their best to care for patients and their own children at home unless they’re supporting their own comfort. I liken it to the safety instructions on an airplane – put your oxygen mask on before assisting others.

Self-compassion tactics

To avoid self-sabotage or self-destructive tendencies, one needs to feel a deep sense of love and acceptance of themselves. That’s why practicing self-compassion is so important. Here are some ways to get started:    

  • Make your own checklist Similar to a checklist one uses at the end of a shift to transition cases, make a personal one to end or begin your day. Everyone’s checklist will look different. We each classify different habits or rituals as essential. Do you need your morning coffee to function best? If you have exercised are you then your best self? For your checklist, consider elements such as:
    1. Acknowledge something that was difficult during your shift. After the feelings come up, let them go.
    2. Name three things that went well.
    3. Did you notice anyone else have a particularly hard shift? Check on them.
    4. Check in with yourself. Are you OK?
    5. Rest and recharge.
  • Relax – Identify your strategy for relaxation to help you take your mind away from the daily grind. Be aware of self-compassion versus self-indulgence. For example, watching an episode of your favorite TV show is one thing but binge watching an entire season is another. For several people, activities like bike riding, working in the garden, reading a book, practicing a musical instrument, or taking a yoga class may help establish a state of flow and provide an opportunity to go deeper.
  • Meditate – By definition, meditation means to focus on something. As you gently have a subtle focus on your heart, you can be a silent observer of your thoughts without reacting to them. An assumption that you are not your thoughts allows you to ignore intrusive thoughts and achieve a sense of peace. Sitting quietly with a guided meditation via apps such as Heartfulness, Headspace or Calm may help you get started. Studies have shown that peace and tranquility rank among the most common feelings people report after meditating, in whatever modality suits them.
  • Check in with your colleagues –Not only should we check in with ourselves, but we should check on our colleagues as well. If you see signs of burnout in a colleague, gently bring them into a conversation, or bring them a cup of coffee, and ask, “Is everything OK? Is there something that you want to talk about? Can I help you with anything?”

Interventions for physician burnout

A 2017 JAMA study found that the strongest evidence for effectiveness in combating physician burnout was organization-directed interventions, but the study noted such programs were rare. Most interventions for physician burnout put the onus back on the physician, with a focus on incentivizing physicians to participate. More effective intervention models are engrained across an entire hospital or healthcare system.

In January 2018, CHOC convened a Physician Wellness Subcommittee, composed of a group of physicians dedicated to help CHOC continue to be proactive and supportive of physicians. Its mission is “To promote physician wellness to benefit ourselves and others.”

Additionally, at CHOC, the spiritual care team offers regular “Tea for the Soul” sessions where chaplains are available to clinicians and provide a compassionate, non-anxious, non-judgmental presence to help them cope with added stressors.

CHOC leadership has taken other steps to provide additional support for its physicians and staff, recognizing the additional stressors placed upon CHOC staff during COVID-19. CHOC’s on-site daycare was set up within 72 hours, giving clinicians peace of mind that their children are safe and happy while they work. Recognizing that shopping for groceries and sundries might be challenging for staff, CHOC has set up in-house shopping resources, as well as a grab-and-go meal program and farmers market.