When you’re burned out you tend to feel it in three general ways; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Physically you’re tired all the time. Sleep doesn’t rejuvenate you. You don’t want to think about exercise; it’s hard to even get out of bed. Basic daily activities feel like a huge undertaking (you mean I have to brush my teeth… again?!) Forget cooking for yourself at home and bringing leftovers to work for lunch. You’re lucky if you can manage to call for a pizza.
Emotional exhaustion is sometimes also called “compassion fatigue.” You went into medicine to care for others, but now all you ask for is to NOT be needed. Does this sound familiar? You’re the responsible one, the knowledgeable one, the one that your family calls when they need help. Your neighbors call you with medical questions. You’re trying to coach your daughter’s soccer team (because you also volunteer for everything) and a parent approaches you from the sidelines wanting you to “just take a look at a rash.” Initially this attention is what made you tick. At the beginning of your career you craved to be needed. You lit up when you could lend a hand. Now you get annoyed. You just want people to leave you alone. You doubt whether the patients are even “sick.” As a pediatrician friend of mine said, “I realized that I was burned out when I’d get mad when the little kids would want to use my stethoscope.” I knew I had a problem when I’d judge every person walking into the ED before I knew their story. “They’re walking fine, what are THEY here for?”
Spiritual exhaustion is a sense of “Why am I even bothering to try and help? Nothing I do ultimately even matters.” You feel like you’ve lost your way. Your ultimate sense of a higher purpose is gone. Have you ever felt like that? “I’m just a wheel in the cog.” “No matter how many patients I see, more just line right up behind them. It’s never-ending.” “No one will miss me if I quit. They’ll just replace me with some other sucker.” “I don’t know why I spent so many years of my life training for this. It was such a waste.”
If you feel like this, you’ve reached burnout. Medicine is a noble calling. It helps humanity, one interaction at a time. It also takes a huge physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on the healer, and we need to help ourselves and each other through this. The more we talk about this together, the more we open up about our own struggles, the better we can help each other so that we can then help humanity. It is our calling.