Vagabond MD , a radiologist and favorite guest of the blog, reached out to me with a fresh take on what I'd thought was a settled debate. He asks if rather than a state of apathy and depletion to be avoided at all costs, burnout might in reality be a painful stop on the road to defining a balanced career in medicine (and developing an intentional approach to living). He puts it better than I am able:
It is a foregone conclusion that physician burnout is bad, really bad. It is bad for the doctor, bad for the patient, and bad for the system. The doc feels lousy, the patient sees a professional who is not at the top of his/her game, and the health care system potentially suffers from lower productivity and lower quality. Volumes have been written about the causes, potential solutions, and impact of physician burnout, and no one has yet suggested that it might actually be a cause for celebration. Until now.
What if burnout is just a phase, something that many physicians pass through, on their way to a more joyful professional existence? In my own experience, despite the fact that I was pretty miserable for a period of time, looking back, it was also a time for exploration and growth. With the assistance of coaches and counselors, I learned quite a bit about myself. I read blogs and books about personal finance, wellness, personality types, and new careers. (You would never believe how many blogs there are about running an ice cream shop.)
Along the way, I took action, doing things that I never thought I could do before. I discarded leadership roles. I dropped out of my demanding subspecialty and its toxic call schedule. I cut back my overall work schedule. I refreshed my professional network, and I picked up new skills. And then I found a part time job in my dream location.
In the end, having navigated the rough seas of burnout, I landed in a much better place. I like work again. I have new skills. My attitude toward my work has turned 180 degrees, from dread to (almost) pleasure. From reading his blog, I think CrispyDoc might share some of this sentiment. And the same goes with many of the other physician bloggers and thought leaders in the field of burnout.
Paradoxically, deep burnout might have saved me from a chronically low-level, unsatisfying medical career. If you are suffering from burnout, the steps that you take to shed your burnout might save you, too.
I love Vagabond's ability to re-frame one of life's low points as a necessary nadir preceding a blossoming of perspective and maturity, a sort of career adolescence.
The chrysalis of burnout might hurt, place you at risk of succumbing to predators, or otherwise impose constraints, but if you regard it as a stage on the way to coveted butterfly status it might be a stage worth passing through. It hurts to shed old skin, but the new one is glorious.
Furthermore, the opportunity cost of living a mediocre life of scarcity (insufficient time / happiness / health / investment in relationships) instead of a transformed life of abundance (so many cool new projects to undertake / interesting people to connect with / skills to master / athletic challenges) is an enormous risk for those of us not banking on reincarnation.
Thanks, Vagabond, for sharing your perspective.