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Recognising the Early Warning Signs of Burnout

Updated on: 19 Jan 2021   First published on 13 Jan 2021

Everyone experiences stress in their everyday life. However, it can become an issue if you’re consistently experiencing high levels of it. A gastroenterologist’s work environment can be high-pressure and extremely stressful, resulting in mental as well as physical symptoms.

On the other end of the spectrum is burnout, where a person responds too little as opposed to too much, which is the case with stress. A person can develop burnout if they’ve been under stress for a long time. It’s a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. The person affected may feel powerless in their situation and like they can’t do anything about it, or that there is no point in trying.

Whilst helping others can be very fulfilling, it can also drain your emotional reserves and overtime may result in burnout. The World Health Organisation recognises burnout as an occupational phenomenon, and characterises it by three symptoms:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional efficacy

Across the globe, burnout is high among doctors and many will experience it in their careers. Rates are rising and have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, both stress and burnout are remediable, and one of the most important steps is developing the self-awareness to recognise the early warning signs:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of concentration, energy, and effectiveness
  • Cynicism
  • Depersonalisation
  • Detachment
  • Increased frustration and irritability
  • Substance misuse
  • Decreased work standards
  • Behaviour changes

(adapted from bma.org.uk)

Acknowledging the signs early on means you can start to take control and prioritise your own welfare, which in turn will help you better care for your own patients. Don’t feel guilty for putting yourself first, everybody needs to care for their own physical and mental wellbeing.

Family, friends, and colleagues can be a great source of support and lend a listening ear when you need it. Taking a few moments out of work for deep breathing and mindful meditation can be greatly beneficial. Mindfulness involves being in the present moment and making ourselves more aware of our current thoughts and feelings. Don’t be discouraged by the time needed to practice as it’s an investment that will pay off!

Ensure you get enough sleep and think about what kind of exercise or hobbies you’d enjoy, or a new skill you’d like to learn, even going for a walk just to spend time outside helps you restore a healthy work-life balance.

Other ways to help switch off include leaving work at a sensible time, taking regular breaks to eat and hydrate, and taking holidays to switch off properly and provide you with time to spend with your loved ones. Last but not least, think about how you can restore pleasure in your work. Remind yourself of your values and purpose, and how you can reconnect with the positives of your job.

Remember you can always ask for help from your colleagues, they’ll appreciate you reaching out and it helps encourage others to do the same. Talk to your employers to help make sure you have your say in how your work is done and you can always speak up if something’s bothering you.

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