Preventing burnout in healthcare: taking sanity breaks

In this video, you'll learn strategies that can help you to incorporate breaks into your routine and take some time to detach from the medical world and all of its accompanying worries and stressors. 

Gary R. Simonds, MD MHCDS FAANS
Gary R. Simonds, MD MHCDS FAANS
19th Mar 2021 • 7m read

Most people in healthcare function at a breakneck pace. We multitask from sunup to sundown and barely give ourselves a breather. In this video, from our Resilience Masterclass, you'll learn strategies that can help you to incorporate breaks into your routine and take some time to detach from the medical world and all of its accompanying worries and stressors.

Join our Resilience Masterclass: 10 Critical Skills course now!

Burnout among healthcare professionals is all too common! This course will teach you how to recognize burnout in a healthcare setting and what you can do to build resilience against it. You’ll learn how to establish a resilience network around you, explore workplace stressors, and develop tactics to mitigate the pressures. The time-tested strategies you’ll learn will empower you when facing any challenge that crosses your path.

Video transcript

We've often been accused of offering up resilience exercises and suggestions that are quote, "just common sense", or are quote, "too simple to be effective". And truth be told, all our strategies for building resilience are simple, and are straightforward, and are basic common sense with respect to self care. And, this lesson is perhaps an archetype for this notion.

But simplicity and common sense foundations do not make the strategies invalid. In fact, who wants to wallow in psychological terminology and complex algorithms to affect the degree of protection from burnout? We want you to be armed with multiple simple strategies that you can enact day to day, starting today, both at work, and at home.

Okay, with this in mind, in this Medmastery lesson, we simply want you to practice taking a break. Most people in healthcare function at a breakneck pace. We multitask from sunup to sundown and barely give oursel

ves a breather. We may even find this intrinsically rewarding, knowing that we work harder than almost anyone else in the whole society. And we may truly love what we're doing and derive much fulfillment, meaning, and wonder from it. So much the better. But there is such thing as too much of a good thing.

And the more we're totally immersed in our work, the more we tend to cut ourselves off from our co-workers, our families, our friends, our inner selves, our interests, and our pleasures, all of which are critical to maintaining our resilience. In addition, no matter how much we love it, it is stressful, constantly stressful, on so many fronts. So we're asking you to learn how to incorporate breaks into your routine.

To take time to detach from the medical world and all its attendant worries and stressors. Time to reflect on uplifts, time to restore some inner peace, time to explore one's thoughts, time to connect with others. So, how do you do this? Try these. One, start by incorporating breaks into your daily schedule.

Now some medical positions may have these incorporated in the work day, but many do not. And for those who have them, we would bet anything that you don't take full advantage of them. Go ahead, map out your typical work day and try to define periods where a 10 to 15 minute break might fit in. Come on now, don't tell us there's nowhere.

If there truly isn't, it's time to negotiate for more help, and a better job. We would bet however, that if you're like the rest of us, there are opportunities, but you never seize them. Instead, you cram that time with extra work, extra duties, extra stressors. Two, repeat the mantra. If I wait until all my work is complete, to take a break, I'll never take a break.

Remember, the work never stops coming, so you never get to the end of your workload. We should note that one problem with taking breaks while everyone around you is buzzing about however, is that you're liable to feel a real sense of guilt. We healthcare providers love to feel guilty. So three, repeat another mantra, no guilt for self-compassion and self care.

Go ahead ask yourself honestly, will the system irretrievably collapse if I escape the craziness for just a few minutes here and there? Challenge that guilt with the question, won't my work efficiency be so much better if I've had a chance to shift out of crisis mode for just a little while? And ask yourself, am I not part of a team? Won't my teammates cover for me on my break, just as I cover them?

Four, try to separate yourself geographically from the hue and cry of your work environment. Ideally step outside, breathe in some fresh air, take in some scenery. If this is impossible, find a quiet spot, somewhere where you can have your thoughts to yourself. If even this is not possible, at least find an area where others are not constantly interrupting you.

Sitting down over a nice cup of coffee or tea will often do the trick. Five, clear your thoughts of all things medical and work related. Practice mindfulness if you wish. Take in a pretty view out the window, study a painting, read some poetry, do some breathing exercises or yoga, listen to some music. Anything that separates you from the bedlam, that's your usual day.

Six, shoot for at least one 10 to 15 minute break in the morning, and one in the afternoon., and at least a 20 to 30 minute lunch. During these breaks, stowaway that cell phone, there will be no answering of emails or texts. That's just working. If you're dining with colleagues, avoid discussing anything work related, anything, even juicy gossip.

If need be keep a list of interesting topics to discuss in your pocket. Movies, music, current events, fun activities, fun places to go, that sort of thing. Stay away from colleagues who want to rehash the horrors of the day. Yes, debriefing stressors is an important part of building resilience. But this is your break. And during your meal, sit down, don't take it on the run, and slow your actual act of eating down.

Most of us throw it down so fast, we don't even recognize what we're eating. A habit by the way that leads to ingesting more food than we would like to, and generally foods high in fat and high in sugar. That is, fast foods. So instead, take the full allotted time to get through your meal. Slow your ingestion way down, and actually enjoy it.

And remember, high sugar and high fat meals promise an insulin high and then energy low, all within an hour or so. So work on finding healthy and energy sustaining foods. Come out of the meal feeling energized and refreshed, rather than bloated and lethargic. Seven, take breaks from work at home too. What do we mean?

Come on, we know that you bring your work home with you. If you weren't overtly continuing your workday at home by completing medical records or answering emails, you're thinking about it, even ruminating about it. A sick patient, an angry co-worker, a budget, a need for more support personnel, a demanding administrator, a pending lawsuit, you name it.

You have to break the cycle of collapsing your world to just your work. It will make you unidimensional, and will offer no relief from the intendant inherent stressors of each day. If you must do some work at home, budget the bare minimum of time to get it done. And get it done early. Don't let it hang there over your head all evening.

Then, engage. Engage in activities that bring you joy, happiness, calm, fulfillment and wonder. Talk with your family. Hopefully during a nice long walk out in the fresh air. Pursue an interest, connect with friends or extended family. Anything that takes you mentally far away from your work concerns. If at first you find yourself collapsing in front of the TV out of inertia, create a list of activities, hobbies, people that you want to engage. Remember when so much of life fascinated and excited you?

Seek to rekindle some of this joy in life, outside of medicine. Now, refer to that list at the start of your free time, and do whichever activity appeals to you the most. Over time try to cycle through multiple activities. And keep a list of people you want to keep in your life, and check off how well you're staying connected. Eight, plan some big breaks.

Again, it doesn't matter how much you love your work, you need breaks from it, and a few minutes here and there in your daily schedule will not be enough. The most effective breaks appear to be extended ones, lasting over a week. This gives you a chance to decompress and rest the first day or two, and then shift your mental map to a whole other existence for the next several.

Ideally, get away geographically, somewhere where you feel no temptation to just duck back in the hospital to check on a few things, or to attend a couple of meetings. By the way, professional meetings do not count as true breaks. So, take as much true vacation time as allotted to you. And then negotiate for more.

Also, at the end of the major vacation, start planning your next one. It will help with the natural letdown, you're bound to feel at the end of your break. Nine, along with the major vacations, schedule in some three day weekends, and perhaps even a Wednesday off now and then. This breaks up the routine. It reminds you that there's an outside world full of happy, healthy people, and you should be part of it periodically.

Even a lunch out of the medical arena, in some nearby restaurant can be remarkably rejuvenating. Ten, with your resilience group, take time now and then to compare notes on the techniques you use to give yourselves breaks. Where you go, what you do. Share ideas that have been particularly effective, those that return you to the workplace feeling energized, interested, engaged, and renewed.

So we get it, taking a break is just a simple idea. But it can be remarkably effective in staving off burnout. Every break is a gift to yourself for the diligent work that you've done. Never couple this with a shred of guilt. You've truly earned it.