Preventing Burnout with Self-Care Practices

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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