Interview with Dr. Collins on Wellness

September 5, 2018

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OITE was lucky enough to recently connect with the Director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. He offers valuable tips from his own life and experiences. This is a must read for all, especially scientists just starting out in their careers.

You are well known for your hobbies (music and motorcycles to name two) on top of your professional accomplishments.  How do you maintain all of your varied vocational and avocational interests?
I wish I could say that’s because I am a master of time management and work-life balance.  But I can’t really claim credit for either.  What I will claim is that engaging in such activities outside of work helps me nurture that other part of me that longs for adventure and inspiration, and gives me a chance (especially with music) to create something of beauty (well, at least sometimes).  The uplift from those experiences helps me perform better in my work life.

Science isn’t always seen as the most welcoming/friendly environment in terms of work-life balance.  Has this been a challenge in your career? If so, how have you coped?
Yes, achieving that balance is indeed a challenge for those of us working in science.  As NIH Director and PI of an intramural lab, my work demands can tend to soak up every waking hour, and some that should be sleeping.  And sometimes I let that get the best of me.  It helps me to have a life partner and soulmate (my wife Diane) who is much more balanced than I am and who is masterful in diagnosing and treating the work monomania when it gets out of hand.

Do you regularly engage in any self-care (body/mind/spirit/heart) strategies?
My spiritual life is really important to me – and so I spend a little time most mornings in Bible reading and reflection.  I’m also in a men’s book club with several other non-science professionals who are interested in how faith is relevant to modern life – that has been a wonderful source of shared growth.  And then there’s health.  Ten years ago, I realized I was doing a poor job of health maintenance – no exercise, terrible diet.  A DNA test pointed to a higher than average risk of diabetes, a disease my lab works on and that I really don’t want to get.  I hired a personal trainer, stopped indulging so much in pastries and ice cream, and lost 30 pounds.  Those pounds have never come back – and that same trainer comes to my house twice a week at 5:45 AM to put me through an intense hour of weight and cardio training. The effect of both the spiritual and physical training on my sense of wellbeing has been significant.

What advice do you have for scientists just starting out on their career paths for maintaining their own self-care?
It sounds like a cliché – but it’s important to make self-care a priority, not an afterthought.  Choose activities that really enhance your joy in life; they will be easier to sustain.  Find like-minded people to share those experiences, whether it’s a dance class, a softball league, or a book club – it’s too easy to decide you just don’t have time for something if there’s no one else involved.  The chance to do science is an incredible privilege, but it can also be very exhausting.  Figure out what kind of fuel your tank needs, and then make sure to fill it often enough to keep the engine going!

As shown by Dr. Collins, wellness is more than just one thing. Remember to prioritize your own wellness and self-care by taking advantage of the resources and activities near you. If you are at the NIH, the OITE offers many workshops and drop-in groups on topics such as: resilience, assertiveness, and stress management to name a few. Many university campuses and community organizations provide similar offerings through student life services or recreational groups.

 

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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.