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Preventing Burnout In Medical School

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

n. /ˈbəːnaʊt/

a state of mental and physical exhaustion related to work or care-giving activities

Burnout is one of those things we don’t really anticipate happening in ourselves. It’s particularly common in high-achievers and (ironically) people who feel they have “a good sense of control over their lives” – this is probably why they don’t realise that they are in trouble of “burning out” until they actually do burn out.

In doctors, burnout manifests in the form of compassion fatigue, subsequent detachment from patients, and a low sense of personal achievement. It probably isn’t a surprise that burnout is prevalent in a profession known for its high-pressure environment; the more pertinent concern is that medical students experience so much stress that they burn out even before they qualify to join the profession. If you’re a medical student, there is about a 50% chance that you have or will experience burnout at some point in your career. So how can you prevent this from happening? Well, this is where we come in.

Here are four ways to prevent burnout.

1. Expect it

There is compelling evidence for certain predisposing factors that make a person more likely to experience burnout – perfectionism, pessimism, unmanageable work demands, and lack of recognition, to name a few. Because of this, doctors and medical students are no strangers to burnout; the BMJ describes the rates of burnout in this group to be “generally high globally”. Being in a position where we expend so much time trying to help others, we often forget that we need to take good care of ourselves first in order to do this properly. Expect burnout, so you can take the necessary preventative measures before it strikes in your life.

If you’re a new medical student, expect that medical school will be a bit of a culture shock at first. Everyone around you is super smart, you’re probably not going to be the top student anymore, and your lecturers don’t even know your name. This doesn’t mean that you’re not doing enough, or that you need to start working 24/7 in order to achieve the results you want. Yes, you should work hard, but don’t go overboard. Take comfort in the fact that you made it into medical school with your grades, your extracurriculars, your likeable personality, and your undeniable potential. The university believed in you when they offered you a place, so believe in yourself. Pace yourself – the journey in Medicine is a long one, but things will get better once you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.

2. Set aside some “me time”

This is probably the most common piece of advice you’ll receive as a busy medical student. After hearing this so many times, it probably even sounds a little condescending when people suggest that something as simple as “playing tennis” can solve your life crisis. How does doing more things make you less stressed, anyway? Well, the point is not to occupy yourself with more activities; it’s simply to make sure you spend time on yourself. Personal time is vital in making sure you regularly recharge and reset. Make this an opportunity to do something you love, even if it may not add any value to your portfolio (I already hear gasps from the high-achievers reading this – hello friends; even typing that was painful for me). Keep a diary, watch some silly videos, meditate, start a business – whatever it is, do it; as long as it’s healthy, keeping you happy, and giving you a much-needed break from Medicine.

3. Have non-medical friends

It’s great to have medical friends with whom you can discuss topics like, I don’t know, Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, or about how time-sucking and confusing medical school can be. These friends understand what you’re going through and you often share challenging times. But interestingly, these are the same friends who stress you out by asking how many publications you’ve had. This is why having non-medical friends is equally important, even though it’s highly underrated. If you frequently find yourself comparing yourself with your medical peers, try escaping that competitive environment by enjoying a little stress-free drink with your friends who don’t know the difference between haem and a meme.

4. Be realistic about what you want out of this

There is an important distinction between being burnt out by the job environment (i.e. high workload, lack of support, impossible demands) and being burnt out by the career itself (i.e. realising that you hate Medicine). Most forms of physician burnout are the former, but the latter should not be overlooked. Many students enter medical school with the heroic idea that they are going to help lots of people every day and live a highly successful and fulfilling life, but later become familiar with the other side of Medicine that is… not quite as wonderful. When you’ve been dreaming about being a doctor since you were a child, it’s extremely difficult to let go when you realise that maybe this isn’t what you want to do anymore. When you fall out of love with Medicine, things like “striking a work-life balance” or “salary negotiation” won’t quite do the trick. If the actual career is making you unhappy, it’s probably best to re-evaluate and see if you need to do something about it.

With all that said...

Of course, these are just guidelines; if you know the cause of your burnout - be it toxic habits, unrealistic expectations, or impossible goals – you should start there. Sometimes, you may need to talk to a professional – and that’s ok too. The BMA provides a confidential questionnaire (for doctors, but it works just as well for medical students) to help you screen yourself for signs of burnout, and here are some important links if you need support. If you would prefer more informal support from peers, Tea & Empathy is a very popular (moderated) Facebook group for medical students and NHS doctors. They have over 7,000 members and the atmosphere in this group is as supportive as can be. We definitely recommend checking it out!

By Cheh Juan Tai, Justina


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