I never truly understood what burnout meant until I experienced it for myself. For almost a year, family and friends would constantly remark that I looked tired, and warned me about the dangers of burnout. I ignored them, I convinced myself that this was part of being a junior doctor, that we were going through a pandemic, that I needed to enjoy myself now things were opening up and that sleep was the sacrifice. However, after almost 2 years of working as a junior doctor, I was forced to rest, as my mental and physical health plummeted and I had no other option but to take time off work. I thought I only needed a few days, but one week turned into one month. Initially it was hard, I felt ashamed and worried about what people were thinking and felt like I had failed as a doctor. But over the days, I realised just how much I needed this time of rest. With the help of my support network and therapist, I was able to start my journey of recovery and healing. Having come out of burnout stronger and (I hope) wiser, I want to share what I’ve learnt on this journey so you can learn from my mistakes and stop yourself from embarking on this destructive path.
Burnout has become increasingly prevalent in our fast-paced, high pressure society. To effectively address burnout, we need to understand what it means and its underlying causes. Burnout is defined as a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from chronic stress and is commonly attributed to work or caregiving roles. Burnout can be triggered by various factors, including excessive workload, lack of control or support and a misalignment between personal values and job demands.
During my foundation training, my body was constantly in stress mode. I would frequently go to a busy 12 hour shift on less than 4 hours sleep. As any healthcare professional can attest to, working during covid was an exhausting time. The physical toil of long hours with minimal staffing hours and stretched resources, coupled with the emotional distress made work extremely stressful and overwhelming.
Recognising the warning signs of burnout is crucial for early intervention and detection. Listening to your body, listening to those close to you and paying attention to how you’re functioning can all help with that. Some common indicators include - persistent physical and emotional exhaustion despite adequate rest, increased negativity, reduced productivity and adverse physical symptoms.
Instead of listening to my body, and using my days off to rest, I would cram in as many social activities as I could. People pleasing, a lack of boundaries, chronic anxiety and a constant desire to keep busy meant that I had very little downtime. I continually ignored the physical and mental health symptoms I was experiencing, and eventually it was to my detriment.
The importance of self-care
Self-care has become a very popular term in the last few years, but what does it actually mean? Self-care involves taking deliberate actions to care for yourself, prioritise your personal needs and maintain a healthy balance in life. For me, this meant taking the time to simply do nothing.
Rest is important, it is a crucial part of preventing and recovering from burnout. Rest allows you to stop, pause and reflect. It helps you to replenish the inner resources you have been draining out into work, friendships and relationships. Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Eventually you will have nothing left to give, even to yourself.
It is easy to feel guilty for doing nothing, and switching off is never easy; but once you understand the benefits of giving yourself the time and space to just be, with nothing scheduled, no plans, no tasks; then it will quickly become a non-negotiable part of your weekly routine. Self-care enables you to function at your best physically, mentally and emotionally. Once I started prioritising this, I saw an almost immediate improvement in my mood, physical health and work. Engaging in activities that brought me joy and relaxation helped me to unwind and recharge; and improved my ability to cope with challenges.
Remember, self-care looks different for everyone. Write down a list of what self-care means to you, without consulting external articles or opinions, and make sure to incorporate these things into your life. Practising self-care is not a luxury, but a necessity for living a healthy life.
Set boundaries and learn to say no
This advice applies to both your professional life and your personal life. Setting boundaries was new territory for me, and something I spent a lot of time working on in therapy. I learnt that by having zero boundaries, I lost my sense of self-identity. I was unable to prioritise my own values, goals and needs. Alongside this, it led to overwhelming stress, strained friendships and lack of personal time.
In the workplace it is so easy to say yes to every task you are given, even when you are drowning in discharge summaries, ward jobs and managing sick patients. Saying no at work doesn’t mean refusing to do things, it is about having the ability to recognise when you can’t do something right there and then, or even that day; and having the confidence to communicate this. Staying late every shift to complete jobs that can be done the next day won’t win you a prize, but it could cost you your wellbeing.
By setting boundaries and saying no when necessary, you cultivate self-respect, establish healthier relationships and create space for self-care and personal growth. It’s an act of self preservation and self-care that ultimately allows you to lead a more fulfilling and balanced life.
Learn how to ask for help
This is one of the most important, yet arguably one of the hardest things to do. The saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” never rang more true than when I was suffering from burnout. Often other people can see things that you can’t see, and if it were not for my friends’ persistence, I wouldn’t have gotten the help I needed. I wouldn’t have recognised that I needed a break, and I wouldn’t have had the courage to open up to my supervisors. Once I found the courage to ask for help, things started to change. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. After months of suffering in silence, I opened up and received the help and support that I so desperately needed.
Recognising the importance of asking for help demonstrates self-awareness and humility, acknowledging that you don’t have to face challenges or solve problems alone. By embracing the act of asking for help, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities, nurturing your overall well-being and creating a supportive network that can uplift you in both challenging and joyful times.
Experiencing burnout was an eye-opening and transformative journey. I’ve learnt that prioritising self-care and maintaining a mindful approach to work and personal life are the keys to avoiding burnout and fostering long-term wellbeing. Learn from my experience and create a sustainable path towards a fulfilling and resilient future.
Written by Dr Ife Akano-Williams