Burnout in health care. What is it, really?

I find my self thinking how to get out of exhaustion mode, after trying to run my psychology practice, taking care of my 4 children (yes, 4!), coordinating all family activities, plus house work, practicing my faith, catching up with friends and maybe be part of a positive change in the world.

So, I decided to learn a bit about what is burnout, compassion fatigue and moral distress. Because I belong to the health professional field I thought this to be very significant since my main goal is to provided my clients with honest and compassionate care. If I succeed, maybe they will be able to start this process of finding themselves again. For that to happen I must learn how to take better care of myself by identifying the signs of burnout.

I came across this very good article (Sanchez-Reilly et all) on NCBI website, that explains  what burnout is and how to identify it. Their study was conducted with focus on Oncologists and Palliative Care specialists. Probably, the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis are far more difficult them what I see in my consulting room but the emotional involvement and intensity can be quite similar.

So here we go, burnout was described as a”progressive loss of idealism, energy, and purpose experienced by people in the helping professions as a result of the conditions of their work” and go on to give some characteristics such as physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism (being impersonal and indifferent) and inefficacy. When they explained moral distress the word value was most evident. Do I value what I do? Usually people tend to loose this component of their work due to institutional constrains and bureaucracy required at the job. Compassion fatigue came last explained as reduced emotional energy required to care for someone.

The impact of burnt out described in the article went from personal crisis to sub-optimal patient care. Furthermore, compassion fatigue was said to have similar signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with emphasis on hyper-arousal, avoidance and re-experiencing events after they have already passed.

Luckily, these bright researchers also gave some light on how to self-care to be able to have a better outcome when finding oneself in burnout mode. They divided the solution into to personal and professional self-care strategies.   I shall, for the benefit of us all, list the strategies suggested by Sanchez-Reilly and his colleagues.

Personal self-care strategies

Strive to increase self-awareness, share feelings and responsibilities, set limits to avoid overload of work; Adopt healthy life style with regular exercise and vacations; Use recreation and hobbies to promote life-work balance; Practice reflective writing, mindfulness and meditation; Enhance spiritual development to find greater meaning in personal and professional relationships; Prioritize close personal relationships that nurture and expand sense of well-being.


Professional self-care strategies 

Create a network of peers and coworkers and stay connected with them; Look for opportunities for engagement with organizational activities congruent with your work and values; Improve communication and management skills by seeking additional training; assess and regulate six areas of work-life such as workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values; Balance empathy and compassion with objectivity and look for help with complex cases.

Over all these seemed like very good suggestions to improve self-care skills. I already use some of them but can definitely try new strategies. I guess the most important thing is not to make of this another to do list that we cannot fulfill. I can also suggest more time in contact with nature, exploring  all senses and trying to expand on the good feelings it brings. One little step at a time, as always. Please be kind to yourself.


Sandra Sanchez-Reilly, Laura J. Morrison, Elise Carey, Rachelle Bernacki, Lynn O’Neill, Jennifer Kapo, Vyjeyanthi S. Periyakoil, Jane deLima Thomas

J Support Oncol. 

Published in final edited form as: J Support Oncol. 2013 Jun; 11(2): 75–81.
PMCID: PMC3974630

Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

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