Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
Combatting Burnout

Combatting Burnout in Health Care


Recently, I had the privilege to hear from Dr. Taylor Riall, a general surgeon from the University of Arizona Health Sciences College of Medicine at Tucson. During her speech in Lubbock, she spoke about a serious problem in our country, and in the health care industry specifically, "burnout." There is no doubt a spectrum of burnout, and it means different things to different people. Most people define it as physical or mental collapse caused by physical overwork or stress. 

We all experience stress. To feel stress is to be alive. We are wired to need a certain amount of stress that helps us protect ourselves, to meet deadlines, and to cope with what life throws at us. The problem is when stress gets out of hand. That is what Dr. Riall discussed in her speech. I read recently a report from the respected Blue Ridge Academic Health Group study group that burnout is considered a "silent epidemic that should be one of the highest priorities in our institutions." Problems associated with burnout include (but are not limited to) loss of productivity, an increase in medical errors, feeling of loss of joy and, sadly, even suicide. You can see why it is such a huge problem.

What are things that could be done to prevent burnout? According to Dr. Riall, one of the best things is to encourage transparency and empower all members of the health care delivery team to be watchful for symptoms in themselves and others. She discussed the seven energy levels and how they are relevant to our lives. The main thing that I took away is that we can make a conscious choice in response to events in our lives instead of just reacting. This reminded me of the work of Dr. Stephen Covey who wrote a great deal about the gap between stimulus and response. Dr. Victor Frankel, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, who Dr. Riall mentioned in her talk, also wrote about the topic. 

What these experts are saying is we can choose our response to stimuli – we are not without choice. We can develop our own proactivity and not let circumstances control us. It is not easy. But, when these muscles are developed, we can handle the extraordinary pressures of life better.

Obviously, there are things we can do personally to help us manage our stress levels — these include exercise, watching our diet, getting adequate sleep and even meditation or what is popularly called mindfulness. Prayer is important to many. Pursue whatever it is that helps you manage your stress. Let's all help each other.