Insight, Inspiration, Motivation

Catch ’em Early!

On my radio show, Stress Busters’ Corner, on the Health and Wellness Channel of Voice America, (, I was discussing with my guest, Wayne Markell, who is a Platoon Commander for the Emergency Medical Service (EMS), the issue of Stress and Burnout amongst the paramedics.

Wayne talked about how he encourages his staff to “raise their hands” and be vocal about how they feel, and when they feel distress. He talked about how the staff are encouraged to seek help, for the sake of their own mental health.

As a coach, who believes in (mental) Health Promotion, I think that is precious little, and unfortunately, that is how it is with most healthcare professions. We are expected to seek help, if and when we need it.

If a person is not seeking help, the automatic assumption is that they are coping just fine. Indeed, many of us would say just that, if asked directly, how we are doing! Therein lies the peril!

I strongly believe that all healthcare professionals should be aware of their own vulnerability, and be willing to reflect on their lives, and be able to recognize signs of impending burnout, and seek help long before it happens.

I would actually go one step further, and say that we should target people who are seemingly doing just fine, and help them become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, their own stress triggers, and help them develop more tools to deal with stress. That way, we catch them before the stress becomes a problem in their lives, and the negative consequences are kept to a minimum – just as I like to say, that the best time to stop somebody from hurting themselves by smoking, is even before they light that first cigarette!

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Personal Journey, Psychology, Refocus and Thrive, Self Improvement, Stress and Resilience | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is ‘Stress-free Physician’ an Oxymoron?

I am back, with a year-end blog, this time. Today, the winter solstice has led me to do some reflection. I launched my new website, (

Is it really possible to have a ‘stress-free’ life at all? When I look around me, I see people who are complaining about the stresses in life, and in work. There seems to be no workplace today, that can be considered stress-free. No matter what people are doing, there seems to be this drive for efficiency, return on investment, better quality, greater quantity, and so on. The healthcare field – and in fact, any service sector – just seems to have a greater intensity of stress, because of the increasing demands, and the diminishing resources. There is the pressure from the business aspect, to get better results with lesser expense, while medical care is inherently more expensive. There are also increasing advances, and the pressure to do whatever it takes, to keep people alive longer. One very palpable effect of the global stress levels, is that people often take out their frustrations on anybody at work who does not have the power to fight back, or at home, on the people who are closest to them, and therefore often taken for granted!

So, the big question is: Can we really hope to achieve a stress-free state? More importantly, is any amount of stress actually good for you? My answer would be a resounding “No” to the first question, and an equally resounding “Yes” to the second.

Stress is the body’s response to a real or perceived threat. The purpose of stress is to get people ready for some kind of action to get them out of danger. The action can be the ‘fight or flight’ response. In other words, the action taken either helps the person overcome the danger, or helps them remove themselves from harm’s way.

Some stress can be a good thing. It can motivate us to focus on a task or take action and solve a problem. In this situation, stress is manageable and even helpful. In a questionnaire I remember doing many years ago, a wedding was described as one of the most stressful events in a person’s life.

When a person is unable to achieve either of those results, is when stress becomes a negative thing. This is perhaps the biggest problem facing people today. Often at work, they feel frustrated at not being able to perform in the way they feel is best, or feel that they are in an environment that clashes with some values they hold dear to their hearts. There are also feelings of not being appreciated enough, and the demand to do more and more, with very little emotional support.

It is when such stresses occur repeatedly in a person’s life, with inadequate recovery in between, that burnout occurs. Burnout is of course the stage where a person gets physically exhausted, emotionally drained, with a sense of detachment, and has a feeling of ineffectiveness. “What’s the point?” is often their attitude.

Instead of aiming for a stress-free life, I think it would be best if we accept the reality of life as it is today – the reality that stress is not something we really can avoid, unless we become monks and go into the woods to meditate!

Once we accept what is, then we can equip ourselves to deal with it. We can figure out methods to recover well from the individual stressful episodes and to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of stress, so as to prevent burnout.

December 22, 2014 Posted by | Personal Journey, Psychology, Refocus and Thrive, Self Improvement | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Burnout: Chinese vs US Physicians

Just read yet another article on Physician Burnout ( This one compared burnout amongst physicians in China and the United States. In order to keep the groups comparable, only the responses of physicians less than 45 years of age were selected – there were 6000 Chinese, and 7500 US physicians. I was specifically intrigued by one of the charts presented, which is reproduced here:

Options Chinese US
It is manageable and I’m not making any changes 36% 25%
It is manageable but I need to make some changes in hours/workload/etc. 52.2% 62%
I am thinking of leaving my current position 7.3% 7%
I am thinking of leaving medicine altogether 4.5% 5%

Forty two percent of US Physicians, and 82 percent of Chinese physicians who took part in the survey reported burnout. Of these, 52% and 62% respectively said they needed to make changes in their working lives. This is very significant in that 3120 Chinese and 4650 US physicians know they should do things differently. It would be interesting to know how many of them are really doing something about it, and how many simply feel stuck, and will sooner or later end up either resentful or leaving their jobs.

What is even more disconcerting is that almost 12% of the responders in both countries were thinking of either leaving their current job, or giving up medicine altogether. This means, 720 physicians in China and 900  in the US – all under 45 years of age). If we consider the entire physician population in both countries, this number would obviously be much higher.

These physicians who report burnout must have put in a lot of time, money, and sacrifices to get to where they are. The government also would have spent a lot of resources, training them.

I wonder, what would it take for these physicians with burnout, to decide to stay? What would it take for them to re-discover their love for the profession that attracted them initially.

Please let me know your thoughts, either through comments on this page or by e-mail:

Related articles

June 17, 2013 Posted by | Personal Journey, Psychology, Self Improvement | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Burnout – FAQs

In my last post, I answered one important question that physicians often ask, when the question of looking after themselves is brought up.

Another question that was asked of me recently, was this: “OK, so, I recognize that I am burnt out, but it is such work (sic) to get help! When I think of seeing a coach/counsellor, I worry that they are going to give me ‘homework’ and that is added burden to my already burnt-out life! So, I prefer to just go on, hoping that things will get better. Isn’t it better to do that, than to jump into something (coaching) and then halfway across, find that I am treading on thin ice, and then be unable to turn back?”

Quite a poignant point, don’t you think? Well, there are many points raised in this question, which I shall try and address.

The first point is that it is, of course, important to recognize burnout – but what is more important is to figure out, what is it costing you to stay in status quo??? If you are already aware of your situation, then either you are very self-aware, or something is already going wrong, in your life/career. Chances are, based on the question, that the latter is more likely. What is the price you pay, for not fixing the problem? Is it discontent at work, disrupted relationships – with colleagues/family members/friends, lack of time for self, illness-physical or psychological, or is it lack of recreation time, or a lack of well-being? How badly does this affect you, make you unhappy? How badly do you want to change this situation? Once you figure out the value of change, and if that value is big enough, then you will have the motivation to change.

The idea of “hoping that things might get better” is really hoping against hope, if you do nothing about it. You cannot sit on the sidelines of your life, and ‘hope’ for things to get better. It just doesn’t seem to happen, at least, not with any reportable frequency!

As far as coaches giving you ‘homework’, I think the term itself conjures up a very negative emotion! While most coaching sessions end with the client making a commitment to an action towards their stated goal, it is entirely upto the client to decide how they want to get to the goal, and what the reasonable action is, to get there. For example, if a person decides that they want to have a positive attitude at work, a simple step towards this goal would be to become aware of one’s thoughts/speech, at least a few times during the day, and if it is negative, replace it with a positive thought. Writing things down would make this exercise more effective.

This does involve some work, indeed, but if the motivation is to change one’s thought pattern, and if you want it badly enough, then you cannot help noticing your thoughts, and you would not consider this as unpleasant ‘homework’. The only way to change your life is to change something that you are doing – to that extent, there is homework to do. There are habits to change, and this can only happen with conscious action, done repeatedly.

The idea of turning back is interesting. The whole point of starting a new program is to make a significant change for the better in life. People only do this when they feel unhappy enough with their current lives. Any change, however, is a step towards the unknown. It is a step outside your comfort zone. And a person would only do that when their current situation is uncomfortable or unsatisfying. To expect things to e easy is rather naïve. When considering the idea of turning back, the question is – towards what? The same situation you were turning away from in the first place? What good would that do? Most worthwhile successes in this world have happened when people have stuck it out just past the point where they wanted to turn back! So, one can only start knowing fully well that any change is going to cause some discomfort, but it will be worthwhile in the end.

Please send me any questions/suggestions you have, that I can address in future posts.



May 28, 2013 Posted by | Personal Journey, Psychology, Self Improvement | , , , , | Leave a comment

Burnout – FAQs

I recently gave a talk at my hospital Grand Rounds, about Burnout, which is one of my favourite topics. There were a few questions asked, which I thought I could try and answer here.

“If I take any time off, what will happen to my patients?”

I would like to clarify that I wasn’t asking people to all take lots of time off, and go away! On the other hand, I suggested that everybody needs rest, and that we should all be sensible about recognizing that need, and taking rest, before we become too fatigued, and forced to rest. If we wait until we have to go, then we will not be able to enjoy such time off. Also, if going away for any length of time is impossible, then make sure that the time that we get every day that we come home after work, be well utilized to recover as completely as possible, from the stresses of the day.

It is very true, especially in community hospitals, that there often is nobody else who shares the care of our patients, normally. We have a great rapport with most of our patients, and the sense of responsibility for their well being is also great. This can lead to a sense of guilt, even at the thought of having to make them wait longer to see us, or worse, having to cancel their appointment, for any reason.

On the other hand, we have a responsibility also to give them our best, when we are with them. If we work ourselves to the point of burnout, then we will surely be unable to feel the compassion that the patients need, and perhaps the good judgment we need in certain situations that call for more involved, critical thinking. This can lead to mistakes, or at the very least, misunderstandings and a loss of trust and that very rapport that we try to maintain, by not missing work!

To look at things from a broader perspective, imagine a freshly dug hole in the ground. At first, the hole will have very sharp banks, but slowly, the soil around it will shift, the edges will look blunt, and eventually, the hole will disappear. How long it takes to fill the hole will depend on how big the hole was, but fill up, it will.

Similarly, if a physician suddenly drops out of the scene – due to illness or (heaven forbid) death, there will be a void at first. The size of that void will depend on how well that physician was thought of. It is probably the physician’s own family who will be the most severely affected – let’s make no mistake about that. However, life will go on. Sooner or later, alternate arrangements will be made, others will move in, and the patients will get taken care of, the work will get done.

It is true that each of us is unique – and nobody will be able to do things exactly as you do it! But people will learn to adjust and even like the way it eventually gets done. That is how they will cope with the change themselves.

So, ultimately, it is in our own interests to not be forced to drop out of our working lives before we are ready to go. Also, we owe it to our patients to give them our best, when we are there, in front of them, giving them our full attention.

I will answer some of the other questions that have been raised, in future posts.



May 5, 2013 Posted by | Personal Journey, Self Improvement | , , , | Leave a comment

Making Mistakes

I had promised to write on this topic, a while ago, so here goes.

I was shocked to hear, in this day and age, that any medical educator can actually warn students to “never make a mistake!”

I can only hope that they did not mean it literally. I hope they meant to TRY to avoid mistakes. I hope they meant to say that in the business of human life and health, a mistake made by us can actually cost another human being their health, and therefore can be a very bad thing. I hope they meant that mistakes can be costly in many other ways as well. They can lead to litigation, immense stress, burnout, depression, and so on.

All of that would be right. But the fact remains that, despite everything we do, despite our best intentions, mistakes CAN happen.

What is most important to teach students and trainees is – How to avoid them, and how to deal with them, when they do happen.

Avoiding mistakes involves a lot of forward thinking, even play-acting in the initial stages, when setting up office. Work-flow has to be carefully analysed, and possible sources of error have to be eliminated.

For example, every lab report should be seen within a certain period of time, by the physician ordering it, and should only be filed away after it has been acted upon. In order to prevent mistakes in this sequence, it is necessary to make sure that every lab report is seen by the right physician, at the right time; there has to be some sort of code, that the physician puts on the report, that informs the staff of what action is required. there has to be a mechanism for the staff to see this, and then act on it, and follow up on those actions. Finally, the report has to be filed in the appropriate chart. A system has to be put in place, to ascertain that every one of these steps is carried out correctly, if mistakes are to be avoided.

Even after a system is set in place, and things are running smoothly, there have to be regular evaluations of these systems, to try and improve upon them, and make them more efficient.

When a mistake does occur, it can be a very scary thing. Mistakes can sometimes be small and inconsequential, and at other times bigger, and causing either distress or bodily harm of varying severity. It can also be the result of the action of any one person in the whole team of individuals involved in a patient’s care – and that includes clerical staff, as well as other support staff in hospitals. Often, however, the physician in charge has to take responsibility for it, anyway.

Whatever the cause of the mistake, early, full disclosure is always the best policy. It is of course, required by the law in Canada. There are plenty of resources, and workshops put out by the CMPA (Canadian Medical Protective Association), that help physicians understand what this means, and how to go about it. I am sure that such resources exist in other countries as well.

No matter what, the one thing that patients appreciate is a physician who tells them the truth. The majority of cases that go to court have been ones in which the patient felt that they were lied to, or not given answers to their questions in an honest and open manner. There will always be things we cannot explain when something goes wrong, however, and it is alright to say “I don’t know,” about such specifics. But overall, the patients and their families expect to see that the physician cares that something went wrong, and that they are not taking it lightly.

Perhaps the one thing that will be most appreciated when a mistake has been made, is an indication as to how this will be avoided in the future. If we can make it clear that we have identified ways to avoid it in the future, and put necessary mechanisms in place already, that will avoid a lot of conflict.

I do not know any physician who has worked for any length of time who can honestly say that they have not made mistakes. As far as I have seen, the person most affected, is always the physician, who feels guilty, and worries about making the same (or other) mistake again. They often find it hard to forgive themselves, especially when there has been a bad consequence. Over a period of time, however, they do learn to go on.

Ultimately, mistakes make us humble, they help us grow. They teach us forgiveness, and other valuable life lessons. When we do make mistakes, it is important that we try and learn everything there is, to learn from it, before we move on. And pray that we don’t make more!

April 22, 2013 Posted by | Personal Journey, Self Improvement | , , , | Leave a comment

Preventing Burnout

According to Maslach and Jackson, who created the Maslch Burnout Inventory (MBI), the symptoms and signs of burnout can be grouped under three headings:

Emotional Exhaustion,

Depersonalization (or Cynicism), and


The cost of such a condition, in a physician can be immeasurable – not just for the physician, but for the family, the colleagues, and for the community at large! Unfortunately, when trying to be strong, in the face of repeated stress,  physicians think they are doing the right thing, that has been taught to them, and is expected of them. They believe that everyone around them is looking up to them for strength and support, and any sign of weakness on their part would be harmful to everyone.

This, in reality, is far from the truth. We are doing nobody any favours, if we allow ourselves to suffer to the point of exhaustion, overwhelm and burnout. No patient would want to be served by a physician who is so emotionally depleted that he suffers from ‘compassion fatigue,’  nor would they be very understanding if a mistake was made by a physician who is exhausted, or didn’t really care enough! So, it behooves us to take care of ourselves, so that we can serve those whom we have committed to serve.

How do you prevent Burnout? Here are a few steps you can take, to avoid burnout.

1. Be Aware: Any change starts with self-awareness. We first need acknowledge that this is something we are all susceptible to, and that there is a certain courage in recognising problems and seeking help as required! If we think that we are in some way immune to the stresses, or that we are capable of handling it all on our own, we could be deluding ourselves.

It is important to know and detect the symptoms and signs early, and have an idea of what you are willing to endure, and for how long.

2. Be proactive: Smart people solve problems, by avoiding them in the first place. For example, every physician requests tests, and will receive the results in some form (electronic or paper). Isn’t it the smart thing to do, then, to set up a system, whereby the results will be looked at and acted upon, in a seamless way, least delay? Once this is in place, the chances of missing an important report can be minimised. Similarly, we can have different structures in place to deal with referrals, phone calls, etc. Maintaining a well organized and functioning office is perhaps the best thing one can do, from the professional point of view.

There are many things we can do on the personal level as well, like taking care of minor ailments to avoid major complications, clearing small misunderstandings in relationships to prevent build-up of resentment, and so on.

3. Be very clear of Your Values and Your Mission: You need to know what are the values that are most important to you, as a person, the violation of which will bring you pain. It will also help, if you know what you really hope to accomplish, through those values – in the near, and the distant future.

4. Prioritize: Once you know what is important, you can try to get more of what you want in your life. This includes knowing what is not important, that takes up our time and energy, that you can cut out of your life.  This also means being able to say “No” to things that encroach upon your priorities.

5. Take care of your body, mind and spirit: Eating regularly, eating the right foods, and exercising should not be something relegated to when you have time. It would help to have some activity outside of work, that can help stimulate you in a totally different way, and make you happy. Volunteering is great, not just to balance out the stresses, but also to get some endorphins flowing! A spiritual practice helps to navigate the ocean of life, the currents of which can at times be very turbulent. Make sure you take time for renewal on a regular basis.

6. Build a support system: Have a good team around you. Choose your colleagues carefully, if you are in a position to do so. Make it a point to cultivate good relationships with supportive people, whom you can call upon, when you need help. It also means that you should have trusted people you can delegate all those tasks to, that you don’t really need to do yourself.

7. Learn to be a good team-player: It is important to try and understand that people are different, and that having different people is what makes a team strong. So, when conflicts arise, remember that it is most likely due to a simple difference in mental wiring or a difference in priorities. If you learn to understand the differences, and can learn to negotiate, and to work together – then you can avoid a huge source of stress in your life.


I have simply put together a few suggestions, many that have worked for me, and some, that I am still working on.

Please e-mail me with any comments, suggestions or questions.







February 25, 2013 Posted by | Personal Journey, Psychology, Self Improvement | , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is Burnout?

While talking with a colleague recently, I was asked this question – and I realised that the word ‘burnout was used a lot, and the signs of severe burnout, the point where it hits you in the face, is easily recognisable. However, burnout is something that has to be recognized before it reaches this stage, and there are many people who seem to be functioning reasonably well, and yet, do have many of the symptoms of burnout, which they put down to stress.

There is a big difference between stress and burnout. The main difference is that a person under stress will feel better when the stress is relieved, whereas a burnout person has no hope that things will be any better, even if the current stresses are relieved. Burnout is the result of too much stress, often repeated, without enough recovery in between, over a period of time.

The term was first used by Freudenberger, who described it as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” This is characterised by exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy.

Causes of Burnout: There are many factors that lead to burnout. While most cases occur due to stressful work environment, burnout can occur in a stay-at-home parent, or in a person working two or more jobs to make ends meet, without any vacation or leisure. It can also occur in the obsessive compulsive person who expects too much of himself- and everybody else!

Burnout can thus be due to a combination of work environment and responsibilities, lifestyle, and personality traits. Some of the factors are as follows:

Work Conditions: (anybody in the healthcare field know what these are like)!

Overly demanding job, with high expectations

Working in a chaotic or high pressure environment

Feeling a lack or loss of control over the work

Lack of recognition or reward for good work

Lifestyle Factors:

Too much work, no time for relaxation or socialization

Inadequate sleep

Too many responsibilities

Being too many things to too many people

Lack of or inadequate support

Personality Traits:

Perfectionistic tendencies – expecting too much from self and others

Pessimistic attitudes – related to self and the world

High-achieving, Type A Personalities

Need to be in control – reluctance to delegate

Burnout is something that happens over a period of time, and can be prevented, if the symptoms and signs can be recognized early enough. It is important to be vigilant and pick up these signs, many of which may be subtle.

The symptoms and signs may be categorised as follows:


Feeling tired and drained most of the time

Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot

Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches

Change in appetite or sleep habits


Sense of failure and self-doubt

Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated

Detachment, feeling alone in the world

Loss of motivation

Increasingly cynical and negative outlook

Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment


Withdrawing from responsibilities

Isolating yourself from others

Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done

Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope

Taking out your frustrations on others

Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

In the next post, I will be discussing methods of avoiding burnout, as well as measures to manage burnout, once it has occurred.



January 14, 2013 Posted by | Personal Journey | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why Physicians Burnout – and Why They Don’t Seek Help

In my last blog post, I wrote about the problem of surgeon burnout. Although the particular paper cited was about surgeons, burnout is not a problem of surgeons alone. It is common amongt all physicians, and even among medical students and residents these days. It is becoming more prevalent, as the stresses in life all around us seem to be getting worse.  I have been pondering on the reasons for this, and have come up with the following:

Physicians are High Achievers – Most of them have been high achievers from their school days, and have been consistently working hard, putting in long days and nights, through their medical school and residency, and even afterwards, in most cases.

Delayed Gratification that wasn’t! Many of them chose to “work while their companions played” (a little poetic justice used there), thinking that if they worked hard now, they could have the good life later (trust me, I know. My father promised me that if I worked really hard in the last 2 years before college, and got into med school, I would never have to work so hard again)! They often come out of their residency with huge student loans, that they find themselves working even harder to pay off. If they have a family, or other responsibilities, then it is one thing after another, and before they know it, they hit the middle ages, and feel cheated.

The Ever Changing Health Care System– It is becoming more and more difficult to practise medicine with the diminishing resources, and increasing expectations, that there is a great deal of frustration on a day-to-day basis.

High Expectations – Physicians are seen as knowledgable, and ‘life savers’ by their families and their patients, and when they do not get good results, they often find it difficult to accept. While they enjoy their successes, many take the treatment failures quite badly. They also want to be really good at what they do, and so are their own worst critics.

Sources of Strength – Physicians are the sources of strength for their patients and families, at their most vulnerable times, ie, when they are sick, or have a sick relative. Because they carry out this function really well, most of the time, they are somehow seen as strong people, and so, they try to live up to that image subconsciously, even in the face of their own stress.

Why do they not seek help?

Unfortunately, physicians are their own enemies, in that they are the last to acknowledge their own problems, and even when they do recognise it, are unwilling to seek help. This may be because of two main factors.

Fear of appearing weak – Physicians may not want to seek help because they are afraid to be seen as weak in any way, considering they are the sources of strength at home and in the community.

Lack of Support – There really isn’t much support to the physician at risk of burnout, or who is going through excessive stress. There are physician hotlines for when they have reached a pathological level that they are unable to function, and have either broken down completely, or worse, are considering suicide!

What we really need is coaching to help guide them through troubled waters, and PREVENT suicidal ideation, rather than treatment for it.

Tell me, what do you think might be some other factors in physician burn out, and what you have found helpful in your own experience, to overcome it.

March 10, 2012 Posted by | Personal Journey, Psychology, Self Improvement | , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments


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