3 Red Flags That Signal You Might Be Out of Balance
How to reclaim your power and avoid burnout.
Posted February 11, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- A sense of duty and care puts healthcare professionals at greater risk of burnout because we often ignore red flags.
- The way we look after our own vitality makes a difference to our patients.
- How to recognise 3 warning signs that we might be out of balance.
Exhausted? Swallow a pill or another espresso. Headache? You know what to take. Stressed? Suck it up. It goes with the job. Overwhelmed? Never show vulnerability. You are the caregiver after all, you shouldn’t need to be taken care of. With these macho statements echoing in our heads, a culture of martyrdom within healthcare is inevitable.
Rates of burnout, suicide, and divorce among medical workers are some of the highest in any profession, yet healthcare professionals often keep going beyond their limitations out of a sense of duty and care.
During professional training, the focus is usually directed towards how much knowledge we can cram into our heads. Ironically the rest of the body is largely ignored. Even though we are expected to have a thorough understanding of how our biological systems function and interact, very little attention is paid to our own physicality. Until recently, caregiver health and nutrition were given no space at all in a medical student’s schedule. Thankfully that is changing now, but it means that the majority of practicing physicians have not been trained to take good care of themselves unless they have undertaken independent training.
How we look after our own physicality and vitality matters. After all, who would you rather be treated by as a patient: a professional who seems ruffled, exhausted, and distracted, or one who feels calm, engaged, and full of energy? The answer seems obvious from the other side of the desk, but how often are we able to show up this way as healthcare professionals?
Rushing between appointments, missing family events, and covering our colleagues’ shifts are all commonplace in most medical careers. We can be so caught up in the emergency of the moment that we are oblivious to the red flags our bodies, minds and loved ones are sending us. If you’ve found yourself engaging in any of the following behaviors, the chances are you're operating in overdrive:
Red Flag 1: Blaming the system
A culture that encourages putting everyone else’s needs before your own is not healthy, nor is it sustainable in the long term. Financial and operational demands can often test a healthcare organization to its limits, and that pressure is easily transferred to everyone working within its constraints. It’s easy to feel powerless in this situation and assume a fatalistic approach. However, if a system is just the sum of its components, then you, as one of those components, can influence the whole.
While the healthcare system you work within may be dysfunctional, by consistently blaming it you are giving away your personal sovereignty. It’s good to be critical about what is systematically taking your energy but don’t stop there. How long do you really want to suffer? Until someone changes the system?
When we realize that we are the system it empowers us to make changes within the organization by shifting our own inner state of being. By assuming the role of scriptwriter, director, and actor within our daily performance, we get to call the shots. By taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional well-being we can be calmer, clearer, and more effective, a state which will eventually ripple out to our colleagues and patients.
Red Flag 2: Only managing symptoms
When a patient presents with a range of symptoms, we are trained to observe and immediately follow a diagnostic pathway. When we reach a diagnosis, there’s usually a drug or surgery that will alleviate the symptoms. This can be a very satisfying and efficient approach for the healthcare professional but may only be partially effective for the patient who often craves understanding and healing beyond the primary complaint.
Question: If you felt like you had all the time you needed with a patient, how would you treat them differently?
Treatment: Being more present.
In my experience, whenever I rush to a diagnosis because of time pressures, the patient takes longer to heal because I've missed so many details. Putting aside the need to "solve the problem" and adopting an attitude of curiosity has actually saved me hundreds of hours in consultation. Spending more time listening and being more present seems counter-intuitive when you’re watching the clock, but when I relax into the moment and trust in the outcome, time seems to slow down. Being truly present means showing up empty, open-hearted, curious to learn, and ready to be surprised. As a result, patients report feeling seen and heard as human beings with their own subjective experience beyond just signs and symptoms and often become a motivated co-driver on their healing journey.
Red Flag 3: Needing to be right
Some of our decisions as healthcare providers can have serious consequences. While it’s important to stay accountable and responsible, a defensive, righteous attitude is a definite red flag. Whether it’s driven by a fear of making mistakes or an unquenchable desire for external confirmation, needing to be right can lead to self-justifying and arrogant behavior. If you catch yourself defending your decisions or seeking recognition from others, it could be time to take a step back.
Question: What would happen if I didn’t need to be right in this situation?
We don’t always need to be right, but we do always need to be honest with ourselves. Medical education cultivates critical thinking and doubt and there are many benefits to this. There is even an unspoken reward system connected with criticizing others. We tend to shine when our argument weakens the position of the other. This may be a helpful strategy in academic discourse, but it does not cultivate compassion, the very basis for healing ourselves and our patients. Neither does it foster learning, the most scientific attitude of all. When I take the time to retreat at the end of each day and evaluate what I’ve learned and what would be beneficial to change, it allows me to be more authentic as a healer tomorrow.
There are many demands on healthcare professionals to do and give more. Some of these pressures are avoidable, others not. Unless we appoint ourselves as caretakers as well as caregivers, we put ourselves at risk.
By adopting some of the practices above and learning to be custodians of our own wellbeing, we can improve our chances of not becoming just another burnout statistic. So, how will you take better care of yourself today?
Bonhoeffer J, Ardagh A. Dare to Care. 2020. How to survive and thrive in today’s medical world. Heart-Based Medicine Foundation, Basel.