Tackling Physician Burnout Together

By Dr Andrew Clarke

Physician Health Program

Over 200 physicians in BC are completing their residencies this year. It is an exciting time – a time for celebration and, after all the hard work and studies, a huge milestone in your professional journeys. At the same time that you are realizing your dreams, you are also entering into a work culture where burnout is increasingly recognized as a problem.

Why is this happening? Doctors are feeling the expectations and  pressures within our health care system.  Our work values productivity, efficiency, and outcomes. When we strive to do what the system asks of us,  we often do it at the expense of our connection with each other. Another contributor is the pace of change. In some ways, change is happening too slowly but in other ways, it’s happening too quickly. And it’s not just the system making things hard for us–we sometimes do that to ourselves as well.  Personal and professional autonomy is a real priority for us but when we make choices that preserve our autonomy at the expense of connectedness to each other, we can end up lonely and isolated.

So what can we do to make a difference? Doctors of BC and Resident Doctors of BC are strong advocates for health system improvement.  Both are working hard with your support and involvement to deal with the chronic stressors that are the root of the problem. But these meaningful improvements don’t happen overnight. They can take years. In the meantime, you can improve your individual coping skills and resilience by using the resources that are available to you.  The Physician Health Program which I lead, the Resident Wellness Office, and the EFAP are offered as part of the contract negotiated by Resident Doctors of BC. We each offer counselling and a variety of other services. We also refer back and forth to each other, so if you contact one of us and it turns out you would be better served by a different agency, we’ll help you figure that out.

In between the system improvements and the individual coping skills, there is something else important that is often overlooked. Dr Michael Leiter, one of the world’s foremost experts on burnout, told a recent gathering of physician wellness champions we organized here in Vancouver that a big part of the solution lies in how we treat each other in the workplace.  Through his decades of peer-reviewed research, he has come to see the tremendous importance of civility and respect: offering empathy and compassion to those we work with every day, even in the face of chronic, unresolvable stress.

When it comes to doing something meaningful about burnout, we underestimate the importance of spending time in small groups with those we work alongside day-to-day, not to talk about the tasks involved in our work (we do enough of that already) but to strive consciously toward better relationships with our colleagues. And that’s largely what the event at which Dr Leiter spoke was about. Our 35 Divisions of Family Practice and 69 Medical Staff Associations are making physician wellness a priority. It is great that they each have the capacity to do what’s best locally, but there is the potential to miss opportunities for collaboration.  This event was our attempt to start a range of different conversations among the local wellness champions in each organization.  We want everyone to know what others are doing, and to get inspired to collaborate in the future.

Our goal is to create a community of practice in the truest sense of the phrase, that brings together people who work on physician health and wellness in separate grassroots organizations.   If you’ll be leaving residency soon and staying in BC, think about getting involved in your Division of Family Practice or Medical Staff Association; if your hospital doesn’t have an MSA yet, keep an eye out for it, there are new ones starting up all the time.

I leave you with a thought from the stoic philosophers. There are things taking place around us and very few of them are within our control.  However, we can choose how we respond to them. If we notice that a colleague is being annoying or irritable, let’s reach out to them in a spirit of support and empathy — just as we would if they were a patient.


To find out more about the Physician Health Program and how we can support you, click here: https://www.physicianhealth.com/

If you have questions about the article, e-mail us at communications@doctorsofbc.ca

author: Kejia Wang