Last month I spoke at a conference about burnout in medicine. The idea is, if the doctors are less burned out, they will be better doctors, and then the patients will be more satisfied with the care they receive. And everyone will be happier. Win-win-win.
I had coffee with my former boss, who is a visionary leader, before I gave my talk. He asked me what I thought we should do about burnout. I suggested a Vedic meditation program for a group of physicians at the hospital, and he replied along the lines of, “yes, but then they have to become meditators. How else can we fix burnout?” Another person asked me the exact same question after my talk was over. It’s a totally valid question, and it is also very in-line with our cultural standards. We want a quick fix, and we want it yesterday. We want it to be easy, cheap, and one-size-fits-all. Preferably in pill form.
But, unfortunately, it’s not the reality we face. I don’t have a magic answer that I’m hiding from everyone in the medical community! I got through my severe burnout by meditating. I paid an expert teacher, and I put in the time. Twenty minutes, twice a day. I sat (comfortably, with my back supported), even when I didn’t feel like it. I made it a priority and held myself accountable, because I knew I had to do something to improve my quality of life, my reactivity, and my work-life balance. It has paid for itself, financially, time-wise, and happiness-wise, time and again. Within 3 weeks I stopped having road rage. Within a few months I had gained back my compassion and empathy, I was able to embrace change, and I no longer snapped whenever something minor didn’t go my way. And that was just the start of the benefits I received from my Vedic meditation practice.
Most hospital systems recognize that burnout is a huge issue amongst medical professionals. I won’t bore you with statistics, but it’s bad. And getting worse. The good news: lots of hospital systems have created wellness programs. A 1-hour guided meditation, every 3 months, or a meditation room in the hospital, is a start. It helps to introduce people to meditation. It helps to change the culture around meditation and wellness. It helps people feel that their bosses care about them. (Maybe… see the next paragraph!) But it’s not going to end burnout. Stress is the biggest epidemic our world has seen, with far-reaching consequences. The brains of healthcare professionals (and all humans) have been hardwired to react in a certain way to stressful situations (and to life in general). We’ve reacted this way for decades. It takes a long-term practice to re-wire those changes. And simply put, we won’t see those changes with a ½ day retreat, 4 hours a year of meditation, or more happy hours.
The other elephant in the room here is that the onus is not just on the healthcare providers to rid themselves of their burnout. Wellness programs should not be an excuse for administrators and hospital systems to continue making unrealistic demands on healthcare providers. It is the deeply-rooted, widespread dysfunction of the entire medical system that is leading to the stress and burnout of the providers, patients, and administrators. So, yes, systemic change is mandatory in order to make real progress.
But, it’s much harder to change a whole system than it is to change one person’s wellness habits. It could take years, if not decades, if it changes at all. And if one person is happier, they influence other people to make change. And it doesn’t do us any good to cross our arms in front of our chests, stomp our feet, and wait for the medical system to change so that we can be less burned out. We, as adults, and as members of humanity, owe it to ourselves and to the people around us to take as much accountability for ourselves as we can.
Of course, the holy grail is a wellness program that is cheap, generalizable, able to be widely disseminated, time-efficient, and easy. And on-line. But it’s not realistic. Hospitals, administrators, healthcare systems, and individual healthcare professionals need to realize that it takes time, money, and commitment for a wellness program to really work. You get what you pay for. How many thousands of dollars do hospitals spend each year on each employee’s health insurance? What’s another $1000 if it improves efficiency, work satisfaction, health care utilization, and mental health? It’s time we start showing our front-line healthcare providers that we actually care about them as people, not just as vehicles to improve our patient satisfaction scores. It’s time to commit to real change, even if it comes 1 provider, or 5 providers at a time.