Avoid Physician Burnout: Focus on Your Strengths

Avoid Physician Burnout: Focus on Your Strengths

Photo by Andreas Fidler on Unsplash

It’s difficult to avoid physician burnout when the demands keep increasing and it feels like the system is against you. For some, burnout becomes the norm, and it takes a big toll. In case you’re unsure, here are the three components of burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion and depletion
  2. Cynicism, depersonalization, and withdrawal from your work
  3. Inability to connect with your strengths and your accomplishments

These run together, creating a downward cycle. Looking at the last one, however, we see how a focus on one’s weaknesses can set the stage for burnout. As physicians, we are often our own harshest critics, saying things to ourselves that we wouldn’t say to others. Among the hundreds of physicians I’ve coached, I’ve seen many hyper-focused on their perceived inadequacies. Perhaps you can relate to this? Here are a few questions to help you see if you’re leaning in this direction:

Do you tend to see your strengths or your weaknesses?
Do you pay attention to what you’ve accomplished or what you haven’t?
Do you notice what’s going well or what isn’t?

If you answered yes, know that you probably come by these patterns honestly. They’re the result of our education, our workplace environments, and the broader culture we live in. Changing these habits takes some practice, but it’s a sure way to reverse the cycle of burnout.

Roadblocks to Seeing Our Strengths

Medical training tends to be deficit-based. In residency, our noses were often rubbed in any mistake we made. An Internal Medicine resident recently told me, “On my Onc rotation, the attending kept focusing on how few of the chemo regimens I was up on. On my Cards rotation, the fellow kept at my not being up on the latest STEMI trials. No one seems to notice when I do know something. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten any positive feedback, I’m not even sure if I have any strengths at all.” These types of hypercritical experiences of belittlement create stress, worsen physical and mental health, and can even lead to suicidal thoughts.

Most physicians have stories from their residency about being “pimped,” asked question after question by an attending, just so they’d finally get to the inevitable embarrassment of not knowing the answer. This pattern can leave us focused on our weaknesses.

Experiences like these are pervasive in our training and, for some, may be reminiscent of messages we received earlier in life. Whatever the origin, these self-defeating messages can fuel the downward spiral of burnout.

Physician Burnout and Negative Self-Talk

Let me share with you an example of just how deep this goes. When I give talks on resilience to physicians, I ask:

What’s your typical ratio of self-promoting to self-defeating messages?

And do you know their typical response?

What is a self-promoting message?

Physicians are so used to the self-defeating voices that it’s difficult to identify with the concept of positive self-talk.

In addition to what we learn in our training, this also may result from perfectionism. Many physicians consider perfectionism an asset. And, while it may have served us in taking tests, perfectionism can hold us back today.

Physician Burnout and Perfectionism

Here’s one way of thinking about perfectionism:

  • Holding out for a barely attainable standard and then berate yourself for not achieving it.
  • Procrastinating to avoid facing self-criticism.
  • Believing that berating yourself will improve your performance.
  • Ruminating and experiencing anxiety about your performance.
  • Experiencing a lack of confidence.

Bottom line: Difficulty appreciating your strengths and successes.

A different frame to consider is: Have I done my very best? Can that be good enough?

Physician Burnout and a Strengths-Based Approach

If this resonates and you notice that the negatives dominate your thought processes, practice giving more attention to your positives. As discussed in a previous post, a strengths-based approach tends to be more motivating than whipping ourselves about our deficits. Here are some practical ways for you to shift focus to your strengths.

  • Notice when you get stuck focusing on your weaknesses.
  • Push yourself to shift attention to what’s going well.
  • Notice the “bright spots” in each day—times when something good happens; when you utilize your strengths.

When you find yourself back in the cycle of self-defeating thoughts, ask yourself:

  • What’s right about me?
  • What am I doing well?
  • What are the three things I’ve accomplished today?

Develop the habit of noticing what’s going well. Celebrate doing your best and practice letting “good enough” be enough. You may just find that this frees up your energy, replacing physician burnout with physician resilience.

Combat Physician Burnout: Stress Strengths, don’t Strengthen Stress

Combat Physician Burnout: Stress Strengths, don’t Strengthen Stress

Focusing on Your Weaknesses Won’t Make You Stronger

In this week’s post, I break down why physicians should Stress Strengths rather than Strengthen Stress in order to combat physician burnout.

Last week, I was speaking with a medical director at a large practice who was telling me that he couldn’t understand why the physicians in his group were having trouble getting their charts done on time. I asked him what sorts of strategies he’d employed to try and make the situation better, and he told me he had:

  1. Issued email warnings
  2. told physicians that their pay would be docked if they didn’t do better, and 
  3. posted comparison charts of members of the group. He could not fathom why the performance wasn’t improving.

I also recently sat in on a meeting with a client of mine (an internist) and her non-physician supervisor. To my disappointment, the entire meeting was focused on patient wait times, an area where the supervisor determined she was not meeting targets. Not one word was spoken about the internist’s improved Press Ganey scores, the gains she’d made in consistently starting her day on time, and the positive comments staff had made about her performance. At the end of the meeting, my client broke down in tears.

How can anyone expect me to succeed when all they do is point out my shortcomings?”

Physicians are hyper-focused on their own flaws; we don’t need a supervisor to point them out for us. Negative reinforcement is an old and outdated leadership approach. A person’s path to growth and improvement lies in mobilizing their areas of strength.

Meeting with “the big bully” and seeing the “wall of shame” erode self-esteem and don’t lead to improvement. If you’ve been on the receiving end, you have no difficulty understanding how damaging these strategies can be.

What Research Shows About Negative Reinforcement

Gallup conducted a study when they analyzed over one million work teams. They found that only 9% of employees who are forced to work in an area of weakness are engaged, while 74% of their counterparts who are allowed to work in an area that uses their strengths are engaged. This isn’t a minor difference either; the gap is staggering.

Engaged employees tend to be more productive and happier at their work. One of the easiest ways to increase employee engagement is to help them align with their strengths.

Let’s try a simple exercise:

Think of a task you’ve been putting off completing. Imagine that you’re sitting down to do it right now. For 60 seconds, think about all the ways you believe you’re inadequate to get this task done:

  • I’m not smart enough
  • I’ll never get this all done
  • I’m not as disciplined as others
  • I’m a great procrastinator

Don’t hold back, pick your poison!

Now, mindfully, check-in with yourself. Rate your level of motivation to do the task on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = no motivation at all and 10 = let me at it!

Next, switch your focus to all the ways you’re more than adequate:

  • I’ve gotten this type of thing before
  • I am accomplished and well-regarded
  • I’m good at this type of task
  • Even when I procrastinate, I always cross the finish line

Sweeten the pot a little more by giving yourself an extra 30 seconds to think how good you’ll feel once the task is off your list.

Now check-in with yourself again.

Want to combat physician burnout symptoms but not sure what your strengths are?

While you may be used to focusing on your weaknesses, in your roles of physician and family member I can assure you that you have many. You simply could not have made it this far without them.

An easy way to find your strengths is to complete a basic personality traits test like the one provided by the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychology.

How this relates to physician burnout combat

I’ve written about physician leadership and burnout in the past, and it’s clear that a deficit, weakness-based focus, and burnout go hand in hand.

If we want to avoid burnout or find out how to combat physician burnout, the strategies I mention in this article are key:

  • Stop focusing on what went wrong and start focusing on what went right
  • Help others see their strengths

Want to learn how you can reduce, deal with physician burnout, and promote healthy physician leadership?

Get my Anti-Burnout Physician Leadership checklist for further FREE tips on how to combat physician burnout.