Reigniting after burnout: 3 physician stories

What is working?

I often encounter variations of this question on social media. The response is frequently met with silence or lackluster positivity.

I’ve engaged in conversations with numerous inspirational physicians who have shared their tales of burnout and recovery.

As part of their healing journeys, in addition to their active medical practices, the physicians below have all obtained coaching certifications. These doctors are now even busier than before, but they find fulfillment in ways that nourish their spirits. They derive immense satisfaction from supporting their colleagues and paying it forward.

Susan MacLellan-Tobert, MD

Before embarking on coaching, I was coasting along, managing family time, work, and on-call duties for 18 years. I questioned my teenagers about their emotional needs. Being the astute girls they are, they replied, “Mom, don’t worry, we love you no matter what.”

I was aware of burnout in my peers and sensed its presence in me. I joined our institution’s newly established wellness committee. After a patient’s father threatened my life and my family, leading to my first-ever panic attack, I plunged into full-blown burnout. Exhaustion, disillusionment with work, anger, cynicism – I experienced it all, except for clinical depression. I recognized the need to take proactive steps.

I discovered physician coaching, participated in a coaching course, and emerged revitalized. I was so passionate about coaching’s potential to enhance our well-being and personal growth that I proposed launching an internal coaching program at our institution. Five years and five certified coaches later, the program continues to enhance the lives of colleagues within the organization. Coaching provides me a means to contribute to the personal growth of others in the health care field, where burnout is rampant, organizational change is sluggish, and the pandemic has taken its toll on all workers. Yet, I believe the human spirit remains empowered to progress toward brighter horizons, and I’m thrilled to be part of this journey.

My foremost advice for those interested in coaching or becoming coaches is to immerse themselves in the space, embrace vulnerability, learn, trust, network, step out of their comfort zones, and always remember their innate wholeness, creativity, and resourcefulness!

Traveling with our family brings me joy:

Dr. Mat Daniel

Before embracing coaching, I invested time in career-related activities that felt obligatory but didn’t contribute to my satisfaction. I felt trapped and couldn’t envision making substantial, meaningful changes. Coaching guided me in identifying the type of person I aspired to be, what to prioritize, and where to draw boundaries. I now recognize the value of my contributions at work and am unafraid to make career decisions that align better with my overarching aspirations. It’s become clear that while I strive to change the world, true impact stems from a position of strength.

Coaching also revealed my desire to nurture those around me, prompting me to pursue coaching training. Coaching is a means through which I can impact other physicians, whether regarding their well-being, career choices/progress, leadership, or other aspects. These skills have transformed me into a better leader and team player, proving invaluable in supporting and developing colleagues. The theoretical and philosophical facets of my coaching master’s degree equipped me with the language and skills to positively influence the clinical environment around me.

My greatest professional fulfillment stems from witnessing others’ growth and development. Personally, my greatest joy emanates from my home – my partner, dogs, garden, and the surrounding countryside.

For physicians, my top tips are: 1. Your ideal career may not exist yet – you must create it. 2. Define your life and career’s core purpose and embrace the inevitable compromises. 3. Know your value.

My dogs playing brings me joy.

Michael Hersh, MD

Reflecting on the past, I was undoubtedly a textbook case of physician burnout. Back then, if you’d asked, I’d have said I was simply tired of being a doctor. I was diligently saving money to attain financial independence and retire early, which seemed pragmatic. However, my burnout was evident to my wife, and she played a significant role in my decision to seek physician coaching.

Externally, my life appeared unchanged. I resided in the same house with my wife, two children, and our dog. I practiced at the same hospital and conducted the same procedures. Yet, I was entirely transformed. Initially, I was skeptical about coaching, firmly believing that people fundamentally couldn’t change. Now I recognize this isn’t the case. I’ve learned to question my skepticism. I realized I’d been constructing narratives about myself without scrutinizing their validity. I’ve grown intentional about setting boundaries, prioritizing rest, and being present with my family. For the first time since completing my medical training, I’ve set purpose-driven goals. These goals bring me immense fulfillment and remind me that I don’t need to leave medicine to find happiness – I can have it all.

I relish spending time with my family, embracing novel experiences, forging new connections, and understanding that I possess the ability to construct the life I desire.

My paramount piece of advice is to never cease learning, evolving, or challenging the narratives you weave about yourself. My favorite self-inquiry is: “Is that even true?” You’d be astounded by what you can learn about yourself through this simple question.

Takeaway: If you don’t do something different, nothing will change!

My family is a source of joy:

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Kim Downey is a physical therapist.

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