Preventing Burnout with Self-Care Practices

July 18, 2016

Image of a pale yellow VW bug that has been in an accident and is crumpled up and destroyedBurnout, described by the Mayo Clinic as “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work,” is very common not only in the health care profession, but in many different sectors of work.

The health care profession in particular was looked at in an article in Mindful magazine, which showed that nearly half of doctors in the U.S. report symptoms of burnout.  A 2009 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that doctors are 3.5-5 times more likely to abuse prescription drugs, and additional research published in JAMA shows, sadly, that 300-400 U.S. doctors commit suicide every year, a rate that is 70 percent higher than other professionals for males, and among female doctors, ranging from 250 to 400 percent higher.

Given this evidence, self-care is of paramount importance for health care professionals. However, it is important for individuals in all professions. Self-care is not a “one-method-fits all” issue. Here are some suggestions for getting started as recommended by motivation researcher Michelle Segar PhD, MPH, and Margaret M. Hansen, Ed.D, professor and Nursing Researcher at the University of San Francisco.

Identify your personal self-care behavior.
Self-care means something different to everyone. It is necessary for you to identify your “non-negotiable self-care behaviors.”  These are the things you need to do on a regular basis to keep yourself happy, healthy, and productive. Another way to answer this question is: What do you need to have enough mental, physical, and emotional energy to accomplish your daily tasks? Once you have identified these things, take some time to plan some concrete ways in which to engage in these behaviors regularly. This may involve assessing approximately how often you will need to engage in these behaviors, setting reminders timers, or keeping a journal.

Plan breaks throughout the day for self-care.
No matter your particular self-care habit, taking a break from work at regular intervals throughout the day can be a great tool to keep calm and increase productivity. This break can be taken while doing something you enjoy, like going for a walk or buying a treat.  However, it can also be spent doing nothing. The simple act not doing anything for a short period of time can make work periods much more productive.

Give yourself permission to make taking care of your daily well-being a real priority.
When we fall behind in our self-care behavior, the typical justification is that we have too much to do, and even sometimes that self-care seems strange, perhaps even selfish.

This notion cannot be further from the truth though, as particularly in the healthcare profession, maintaining your own well-being can likely lead to better maintaining others’ well-beings. To combat feeling self-conscious about your self-care, consciously give yourself permission to create some time in your day to engage in these behaviors. Reassure yourself, “this is necessary for me; I need this just as much as I need to get work done.”

Change the way you think about “exercise”.
It is a well-known fact that exercise is one of the primary methods of relieving stress and promoting healthy living. However, the ideas around how to exercise are not always correct, and can even create less than healthy lifestyles. Instead of trying your best to commit to grueling fitness regimens, remember that everything counts when it comes to moving your body. Any physical activity you can get throughout the day is helpful for physical well-being, whether it is taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking rather than driving, or even taking periodic stretch breaks  — not just going to the gym.

Try to reframe your thinking about exercise and view it as a way to help you feel happy and good.  In this light, try to exercise or move in ways that feel good, not in ways you think are “good for you”, but make you feel bad. Next time you find yourself thinking about exercise you think you should do but dread, try this: Close your eyes and ask yourself, “How can I move my body to feel good right now?”

Lastly, rather than thinking of self-care as something you either have mastered or have not, it can be helpful to view it as a continual learning journey. In a world where perfect body image, diet, and mindset are imposed on us through popular media, we are always at risk for setting ourselves up to fail. In reality, success towards our goals regarding sleep, personal time, exercise, and diet ebb and flow with the normal stresses of life. Next time you get down and start to feel like you are not making progress, be sure to have patience with yourself, take stock of the progress you are making, and enjoy the learning process.

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Finding Your Career Path: Are you a Sprinter, Wanderer, or Straggler?

July 12, 2016

Although exciting and important, finding your ideal career path can often be quite nerve-wracking and stressful as well. It is easy to feel like you are drifting in an unknown direction, despite the multitude of professional opportunities. More importantly, it is all too common to fall into the mindset that there is one and only one way to be successful in your occupation. But, as career satisfaction is a complex matter, there are often multiple ways to achieve success.

Having an awareness of your own personal approach can work wonders in increasing your confidence and directing your goals.

In his best-selling book, “There is Life after College” Jeff Selingo synthesizes current research on young adults, outlining three professional categories that they tend to fall in. Whereas each characterization has its own benefits and weaknesses, knowing where you stand on the spectrum can help you gain insight into planning your future career.

Image of six stick people running in the colors blue, green, and purple

Are you a Sprinter?
According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, young adults born in the early 1980s have had, on average, six different jobs between the ages of 18 and 26, and by their 27th birthday only 14 percent of college graduates had a job that lasted at least two years. Economists have further found that increased mobility in one’s 20s leads to higher earnings later in life. Sprinters fit this cohort of young adults perfectly: they act like rocket ships, speeding towards their careers and are hell-bent on success, no matter what the cost. They tend to have a clear idea of what they want to achieve, and they stick with it, assembling a progression of professional opportunities that look increasingly impressive. Consequently, they also tend to change jobs frequently according to their career visions. This approach to finding a career has many strengths: if planned well, it creates impressive opportunities, and can lead to much independence, confidence, and success.

However, the Sprinter lifestyle is not for everyone, and can even be a recipe for confusion and turmoil. Frequent transitions without the ability to move up in your job can be defeating, and student debt provides a real limitation to mobility and occupational flexibility. Also, in moving so fast into a career, it is all too common to not take the time to develop your interests, and explore what is truly the right career for you.

Are you a Wanderer?
Wanderers are not as quick and certain about their careers. Although they can bounce from job to job like Sprinters, they are often not as determined as Sprinters are to find a job and are more likely to work in a job outside of their field of study.

This can often be a strength: in a complex world/economy, jumping headlong into a career is not always the most alluring choice for a young adult, and taking the time to explore career path may lead to more fruitful options down the line. For example, many young adults decide to go back to graduate school for additional degrees in hopes of leading to a job that they are passionate about.

However, for some, taking this time can be limiting, and can even lead to a feeling that you’ve missed out on important career opportunities. Paradoxically, research shows that the bulk of wage increase in an adult’s career happens in the first ten years. So for a young adult who is not catapulting confidently into a career, exploration can seem more like fighting a riptide, with many young professionals remaining in jobs that they are overqualified for, jumping between disparate professional opportunities in hopes of striking gold, and also taking jobs that do not fall on their  educational path. Although messages like “keep your eyes on the prize” and “hold out for better opportunities in the future” are meant to be motivating, it is tempting to wonder how long this will take, and at what cost?

Are you a Straggler?
Perhaps the most frustrated cohort is that of the Straggler. They have tried several career options, and are still struggling to find a true path for them. Some have tried an alternate professional or career path, only to find that it was not what they expected. Some have decided to go back to graduate school in the absence of a clear mindset for a career path, and some are even struggling to find work. In a professional culture that tends to stress the “one size fits all” notion for career success, it can be hard to shed this mindset in order to explore what is truly right for you. Although it can be defeating to find that you have not succeeded in the path you set out for yourself, always remember that your educational or professional institution has resources for you to explore career paths, and it is never too late to begin this process.


Although these categories can seem hierarchical, there are logical steps people in each one can take to lead to success in their careers. For the Sprinter, although being successful may be easy, it might be necessary to take some time to reflect on what do I want, and what would be best for me, aside from prestige. For the Wanderer, it could very well be the opposite: if you see a job that you are interested in, go for it, because it could be a meaningful career step. And for the Straggler, it may be necessary to shed the occupational pressure of family and friends, and take the time necessary to find what is my true calling.

No matter the case, always remember that OITE Career Services is here to help if you are at the NIH. To schedule an appointment, simply go to https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services/appointments.


FROM THE ARCHIVE – Explore Your Interests through “SIGS”

July 8, 2016

What are you interested in? Are you a knitter? A rock climber? A serial book club attendee? WhateveLady Rock Climberr your interests, chances are you have endeavored to carve out time to enjoy them, or found a group of people who share them.

Similarly, we all have career interests–whether we are ready to pursue said careers or not. I, for one, have a children’s book manuscript hidden in my desk drawer that is not yet ready for prime time. I would, however, be interested in meeting a group of people curious about the same field.

Fortunately, as a trainee at the NIH, you can find groups of like-minded people right in your own backyard. The NIH sponsors Inter-Institute Scientific Interest Groups, called SIGS. According to the SIGS website, “the interest groups sponsor symposia, poster sessions and lectures; offer mentoring and career guidance for junior scientists; help researchers share the latest techniques and information; act as informal advisors to the Deputy Director of Intramural Research (DDIR); provide advice for the annual NIH Research Festival; and serve as hosts for the Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series.”

I encourage you to peruse the list of SIGS and find a group of people interested in the same topic(s) that interest(s) you. As you look at the list, you’ll find that there are a few groups focused more on specific career fields than on scientific research-related content. Check out the Patent Law and Technology Transfer Interest Group, for example. This group seeks “to provide an educational and networking opportunity for NIH scientists interested in patent law and technology transfer.” They have even developed a Patent Bar Study Group for those interested in passing the patent bar.

Whether the SIGS you are considering focus on a particular area of research or on a particular career, I encourage you to join, or explore starting a new SIG if you don’t see your interest area listed. Some SIGS include scientists from outside the NIH, and all of the SIGS include scientists from different institutes. This outlet represents a potential gold mine for networking! Get to know other scientists interested in the same area of research, attend lectures to learn more about a particular topic, initiate conversations that may spark collaborations. All of these activities will enhance your work as a scientist–and could strengthen your candidacy on the job market.