TW: suicidal ideation
Our recent podcast episode is all about how burnout affected my marriage and our next episode will be all about beating burnout with Dr Amy Imms, founder of The Burnout Project. So it got me thinking about writing a post about my own struggles with burnout in medicine.
It’s easy to write things like – stay hydrated, practice self care and maybe meditate. But it’s hard to lay it all out on the table and be completely honest about your dark days. To be completely frank with you all, I wasn’t the most sustainable doctor.
I took work home, if things weren’t done I’d stay back to finish, I felt guilty saying ‘no’ and would do unpaid overtime. Lunch breaks were often missed, I was rarely hydrated and during night shifts I struggled to sleep during the day. At one point I was losing weight, had stomach pain and looked a shell of myself. That was me.
I want to be real and open. So here are my struggles with burnout.
In medical school I found the first two years relatively ‘easy’, similar to high school in that you studied and sat exams. However, my transition to third year was very difficult.
I was clinical full time, so I spent every day at the hospital, almost like an intern. I did ward round notes, discharges, collected blood, inserted cannulas and more. Always an overachiever, I wanted to do well and tried to impress my supervisors.
It was tough because I’m introverted, and every few months you change and need to make new first impressions. Plus, every clinical skill is completely new to you, it can be scary to mess up and fail.
And I wasn’t very good at failing or making mistakes. Always hard on myself, I’d berate and criticise anything I didn’t do right. This urged me to take a gap year, to reassess things. I almost didn’t go back to medical school, but decided I should finish what I started.
After time off between third and fourth year I came back refreshed and more confident. I found my last two years a lot better, and felt more capable. The time off was essential for this and, for me, it was the right choice.
Internship & residency
Internship was a whole new world to me. Though I had been an almost intern for three years during medical school, there was nothing to prepare me for actually being responsible.
Relief terms where you cover the whole hospital were brutal and anxiety stricken. It was impossible to see every patient that needed to be seen, let alone do the thorough job that I wanted.
Mixed with COVID-19, I often found myself working overtime and being understaffed. It was rare to have a full team, and I was in the deepest stage of burnout.
At the time I knew I was burnt-out, but I didn’t really realise how bad it was. Now that I’ve been able to step back and have time off, I can see the severity.
All I could think at work was how I didn’t want to be there. I desperately wanted to escape. My memory was poor, I was distracted at home and it began to affect my personal relationships.
I didn’t feel in control of my life, and I had lost sight of why I was doing what I was doing. The only thing spurring me along at work was the fear of patients having a bad outcome.
I went into medical school energetic, full of empathy and wanting to ‘help people’, but in 2020 & 2021 I felt empty. My compassion was a distant memory. At my worst, I contemplated ending my life to avoid returning to work.
What actually helped me
- My relationships
- Taking time away
- Reflecting and reevaluating
- Being strict with my sleep hygiene
- Small, easy meals
- Limiting caffeine
- Time outside
- Finding like-minded docs (Drs4Drs, Doctors’ Health Advisory Service)
- Exploring the many options available to doctors out there – we are never stuck!
- Inspirational podcasts + books
You’re never alone. It’s not just you.
Once as an intern I voiced aloud how sucky the day had been and expressed my doubts about being able to finish internship.
Every single intern in that room looked up and said, “wow, you feel that way too?”
Every. single. one.
You’re not weak. There’s nothing wrong with you. We’re all human beings working in a difficult system and facing complex situations daily. It’s okay to experience many emotions. There’s strength in vulnerability.
Please recognise how you feel and reach out for help if you need it. Little steps is all you need to take.
For crisis support call:
1300 374 377 (1300 Dr4Drs)
Lifeline 13 11 14
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