Illustration: Matija Medved

One Day at a Time

The Burnout Is Real: Advice for Health Care Workers

Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

Elemental
Published in
6 min readApr 21, 2020

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we faced a growing epidemic of burnout and anxiety among doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals. That strain is unfortunately only going to get worse with the new demands on our health care system. But there is hope based on new research that health care professionals (and all of us) can put into practice today.

Have you ever seen a doctor in a movie or on television taking a break from the emergency room to use the bathroom? I haven’t. While TV isn’t reality, there is a lot of truth to this representation. When my classmates and I took our Hippocratic oath in medical school to “first do no harm” and we put on our white coats for the very first time, we were also silently agreeing to shoulder the responsibility to put others first. This necessary promise makes a lot of sense, not just for doctors or health care providers, but for all of us. In the face of danger, parents will literally sacrifice themselves for their children. Historically, martyrs have been praised and respected rather than reviled.

As humans, if we don’t take care of ourselves or do the work to make sure we’re helping out from a place of wholeness, we can’t function, much less help anyone else.

Yet in modern society, martyrdom has taken on a different meaning. In the era of social media, where good deeds go viral, our very human reaction after the wow, that person is amazing moment of appreciation is to then compare ourselves to them. As discussed in a prior column, this comparison can lead to guilt that we’re not doing enough, or shame that we’re not good enough. And that can plant a poisonous seed that grows unseen if we don’t look inside ourselves or take the time to self-reflect. If that seed germinates, it can cause us to feel like we should be doing more. And since helping others feels good, modern martyrdom can even get grooved and reinforced in a similar manner to other habits. It feels bad…

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Jud Brewer MD PhD
Elemental

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. www.drjud.com. @judbrewer