Physicians, nurses, clinical leaders and support staff all work toward one common goal: providing excellent care to patients. But sometimes caring for others can be overwhelming — especially in the ever-changing medical landscape caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Oftentimes, the last thing you’re taking care of is yourself — which can lead to feeling burned out.
Dr. Christopher Min, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC, offers the following strategies to providers to help prioritize self-care, prevent burnout and keep them emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.
How can providers prevent burnout?
“Think like a psychologist,” says Dr. Min.
Dr. Min explains that the No. 1 ethical principle that psychologists must practice is beneficence and non-maleficence: Take care to do no harm.
Psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical or mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work. Therefore, psychologists must practice self-care to ensure that they aren’t doing harm to others.
Self-care is an ethical issue, not an optional endeavor, says Dr. Min.
The same then should be true for all providers, he says. They must be well before they can help their patients be well. It’s much easier to prevent burnout in their lives than to have to dig themselves out of a place of burnout.
For practically dealing with preventing burnout, Dr. Min offers providers the following tips:
Schedule, schedule, schedule
Build self-care into your routine; this time can be short, but it must be consistent. Dr. Min suggests these simple acts of self-care:
- Take time to make and enjoy coffee in the morning.
- Take your dog on a walk.
- Look out the window and noticed the trees, people walking by or the sky.
Physical activity is a natural mood enhancer; this time can also be as long or as short as you want, but it must be consistent. Here are a few easy ways to add some exercise into your routine:
- Walk around your neighborhood.
- Go on a family hike.
- Ride a bike along the beach.
- Stretch periodically during the day.
- Take the stairs.
Prioritize your sleep
It’s been proven that sleep deprivation can lead to lower mood, irritability, anxiety, decreased focus and concentration.
To help you get much-needed rest, Dr. Min suggests:
- Strive to sleep for seven to nine hours a night.
- Keep consistent bedtimes and wake times.
- Avoid electronic devices within one hour of bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine intake after lunch.
- Sleep in a cool, dark room.
Give yourself a break
This is a cognitive tip because unrealistic, inflexible demands for yourself can accelerate feelings of burnout. You may need to practice reframing your thoughts.
Instead of telling yourself, “I have to finish work in enough time to go to run errands when I get off. If not, I am a failure.”
Say, “I am going to strive to finish work and if I have time, I will go run my errands.”
The first thought was too black and white; the second offered less stress and pressure while still striving to do the things that you know you wanted to do.
Rely on those around you
Social support can help with sustaining a busy, demanding lifestyle. This social support can come from a variety of sources like:
- Your neighborhood
- Religious organizations
Reduce media consumption
Increased media consumption has proven to lead to increased anxiety and depression. We are living in the information age but having to absorb and process too much information at once can be harmful. Instead, consider:
- Limiting your exposure to news and social media.
- Scheduling time away from devices and news outlets.
- Transitioning the type of media you consume away from television and the internet.
Reflect on yourself
None of the previous tips will help if you aren’t aware of how you are doing. Self-care starts with self-awareness and monitoring. Get into the habit of rating yourself on a scale from 1 to 10.
- 1= little to no stress, doing well, no crisis
- 10= extremely stressed, doing poorly, many crises
Track your rating day-to-day and then if you need to, do something about it.
What is burnout?
Dr. Min defines burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. With it, comes the sensation of constantly feeling swamped — which can negatively affect your work and your life.
Mentally, providers may feel overwhelmed and unable to think, leading to a lack of professional efficacy. Emotionally, they can be apathetic and have a detached attitude toward people, with a loss of interest and meaning in their work. Physically, they may feel excessively tired and fatigued.
What are symptoms of burnout?
Since burnout is not a specific or formal mental health diagnosis, there are no formal symptoms. Therefore, the symptoms are highly individualized. Dr. Min says people have experienced some of the following burnout symptoms:
- Having a loss of compassion – feeling like you have nothing more to give
- Being callous toward people
- Feeling emotionally hardened or drained — you don’t empathize well because you are having such a difficult time yourself
- Feeling that what you’re doing — professional or personally — isn’t important
What is not burnout?
Dr. Min wants providers to know that burnout is not weakness; it is not an indication that someone is mentally weak. In mental health, psychologists have been fighting a stigma that mental health issues arise from lack of effort or not being strong enough.
Additionally, there is a mental health stigma that tries to tell someone that burnout is a subjective experience that may be fabricated. That’s completely untrue, every person has a breaking point and limits to what they can handle.
Although burnout can be related to mental health difficulties, it is not a formal mental health diagnosis, says Dr. Min. However, it is possible that depression may be a significant contributor to burnout, and they may be closely linked.
What can cause burnout?
Dr. Min encourages providers to pause and think about what is happening in their professional lives and personal lives that might trigger burnout. The following examples could potentially lead to burnout:
- Stress from acute or chronic events
- The death of a loved one or pet
- Financial strain
- Parenting a child with special needs
- Moving to a new home, neighborhood or city
- Job stress
- Working long hours at a demanding job
- Difficulty with your boss
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused these additional stressors for some:
- Economic stress
- Loss of jobs
- Furloughs, income reduction
- Financial strain
- Family stress
- Illness – families that have members who are sick or have died from COVID-19
- For patients without COVID-19, getting access to medical care may have been difficult.
- Job Stress
- Childcare issues — day cares being closed
- Working from home while having to help kids with school
For more about CHOC’s pediatric mental health services