How do you avoid professional burnout? Two clinician friends of mine recently shared their divergent paths: one is starting a company, the other is taking a sabbatical.
Since avoiding extreme, chronic stress is a challenge that I hear about a lot I thought I’d share my advice for each of them and ask for community input. If you have faced burnout, how have you recovered? If you are an entrepreneur, what advice do you have for a first-timer? If you have taken a sabbatical, how did you approach it?
Here’s what I shared with the startup founder after talking with him about his product idea:
I’d be interested to know who lands on each of the following lists:
- People for whom the tool solves a problem.
- People for whom the tool creates a problem.
If the people on the second list are the people who control access to patients, clinicians, the EHR, regulations, purse strings, or any other important lever of change then you need to find a way to get them onto the first list. Maybe by giving pitchforks to the people on the first list!
You might enjoy listening to a few of the podcasts I follow for inspiration:
- How I Built This – Guy Raz interviews successful entrepreneurs about how they executed on a great idea and built an extraordinary business. It’s hagiography and I sometimes shout at Guy to ask tougher questions (like when the Airbnb founders were on and he didn’t ask about the racial discrimination that happens on their platform), but I find it inspiring nonetheless.
- Tech Tonics — Lisa Suennen and David Shaywitz, MD, are thoughtful health/tech VCs who interview all kinds of people, including entrepreneurs. Grist for your mill.
- The Exam Room – Bryan Vartabedian, MD, has been blogging for years at 33charts and he just launched a new podcast focused on peer advice among clinicians. Bryan is a doctor-entrepreneur who is open about finding his way, stumbling, trying new things. The first episode focuses on physician burn-out — an interview with Sasha Shillcutt, MD.
Here’s what I shared with the person starting a sabbatical:
This TED talk is about the power of time off (an extreme example, but useful as you begin your journey).
And if you are interested in mapping out a plan and having someone help coach, encourage, prod, and hold you accountable to it, I would like to recommend Andre Blackman. He’s the founder & CEO of Onboard Health and one way to describe him is to say that he sees things that we don’t see about ourselves, then reflects that back with kindness and advice. And his entire career has been centered around health innovation, so he might just be the perfect guide for you right now.
OK, people: Your turn. What would you add? Please share in the comments below.
Featured image: Death Valley Ahead, by nat urazmetova on Flickr.
Damon Davis says
Love that you addressed this. Time off after HHS granted me the mental space to create my podcast. It’s amazing how taking a step away from the grind affords one the mental space to regenerate and think creatively.
Unfortunately not everyone can take a year off like Stefan Sagmeister (or myself for that matter) but similar to his model (Interspersing his retirement years between his working years) I’ll bet one could take a month off every other year or something similar. An informal tactic many of us used a lot in the IDEA Lab was to work remotely in the mornings. Read used to work at coffee shops, I loved sitting in the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn in the spring. Time away from the work space is huge for clearer thinking.
The How I Built This podcast is a great listen for anyone who needs motivation to press on in the endeavor of their passion. It’s always helpful to hear stories of others like yourself to combat the feeling that you’re alone in a situation, like entrepreneurship.
Of course, I love my man Andre Blackman. He’s really insightful as noted.
I’ll definitely take time away from work again in the future. It’s been regenerative in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
Susannah Fox says
Taking time & space to allow your own creativity to bloom is a necessity disguised as a luxury.
Love the example of remote work (for anyone who doesn’t know us: Damon & I worked together in the Obama Administration at HHS which was in the ugliest building in DC but close to some gorgeous places like the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Hirshhorn museum).
Gisele Grayson says
I’m taking a 3-month leave this summer to play with kiddos, let them have a summer where they can go feral, that’s not one camp after another–and try to get my ducks in a row (wills, finances, etc) and catch up with some friends. I have very few goals, very low ambitions, I just need to BE…to have a brain that’s not completely on overload all the time. Having any kind of mental space has been nearly impossible being a health policy journalist for the past 7 years… It’s a job I love and my reporters are incredible, but I need to step completely away from work for a while and just slow. down.
Susannah Fox says
Mental space! Roll around in it, stretch out, curl up — just BE. So important to being able to renew and refocus yourself as a human (and as a professional).
Jodi Sperber says
There must be something in the air, or perhaps it’s just because spring is a time of rebirth (and reentry into the world for those of us in colder winter climates…) as it seems that I am running into this conversation on a daily basis.
You ask about how people have recovered, and I can’t exactly speak to that. I can, however, speak to the upstream part wherein the burnout is recognized and a plan of action is created to address it. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve done personally is to give myself permission to consider the options. It sounds silly, but this notion of giving myself permission to consider alternatives to my current notion of work has opened up new avenues and perspectives.
The next thing I did was make a spreadsheet. I am pretty Type A, and this created a space to make a plan and commit in writing. There was a tab for the good stuff (about my current professional path, about what I enjoy), a tab for the concerns and challenges (again, current path and things I wish to avoid), a tab listing the people I wanted to speak with to get their perspective and experience on this topic, and a tab of my commitments on concrete dates for decision making.
The act of speaking with others was particularly wonderful, and served as an important reminder of all the connections we collectively bring, and how valuable it is to ask others for their story and perspective. It was also a good reminder that our friends and colleagues want to help, and we’ve all struggled at times on how to stay true to our inner voice.
I put together a quick summary of what I took from those conversations and shared it back with the people I’d spoken with and while it’s not a robust qualitative analysis, I share part of it here in case others would find it useful:
• The tl;dr version on taking a self-imposed sabbatical is this: No one has said “I wish I hadn’t done that.” And, on the flip side, several have said “I wish I had done that.”
• A few people noted that waiting too long can force a decision that is short sighted, or that you take just because it’s an opportunity. Even if it’s not the right opportunity.
• The idea of maintaining momentum, in whatever way you need that to happen, is fairly universal. Sort of a mantra of “Keep moving; don’t get stale.” Reading, reconnecting with the things you love, continuing to talk with others, taking advantage of the things happening in your community that you haven’t been able to do given other demands… etc.
• If you find you are losing momentum, whether that’s in your job or otherwise, pay attention to that observation.
• It helps to have a plan, but serendipity is also necessary. As is calm.
Perhaps I’ll run into Gisele this summer as our kids are out there in gloriously feral form!
Hey Jodi and Susanah!
Deb Lebel tipped me off this post.
I went through a serious case of burnout and I have used that experience to start a coaching company to help professional women avoid or recover from burnout.
Since I am trained in health behavior and health education it was easy for me to reverse engineer my recovery process into a simple curriculum. I shared it with my therapist and PCP and go the thumbs up.
It covers five areas: vision, awareness, time, activities, and boundaries.
Another tool that is useful is the Personal Craziness Index. It’s a tool used in addictions to help people in recovery notice the signs of relapse. It might be dirty dishes, constantly losing your keys, running of gas in your car, no exercise, and poor sleep habits. Too much of this little stuff is a sign you are headed for burnout.
Lastly, Beth Kanter wrote the book Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Impact Without Burnout that talks about both organizational and personal solutions.
Susannah Fox says
Thanks, Aisha! Congrats on finding a way out AND helping other people follow your trail. People can find her site here:
Doug Lindsay says
It’s funny to see that road image at the top. Is it the open road of a vacation and the highway calling, or just a long road left to travel?
Love your advice. I’ll be giving part of my #WTFix talk on a micro example of your List 1 and List 2. So, it was cool to see someone thinking the same way on the macro scale.
So much of my thinking has been shaped by Bioethics pioneer and physician E.D. Pellegrino that I’d suggest someone consider reading “The Philosophy of Medicine Reborn (A Pellegrino Reader).” Often doctors aren’t particularly contemplative. The long hours, hectic schedules, and crush of patients during residency set the tone for what it means to be a doctor for many, and some might like to slow down and read some of these essays. Knowing WHY they do what they do on a very deep, congruent level is great fuel — it was for me and I always enjoyed reading Dr. Pellegrino’s works and talking to him. Dr. Jerome Groopman’s “How Doctors Think” is another amazing book. Groopman has written 3 books (that I’ve read; he may have others). This one is the kindest to doctors. He is a doctor but a patient too and this book is illustrative and informative, but kinder to the MDs than his other two. Getting in touch with WHY can be great… Ooherwise, one risks spending a week at the beach and comes back to work to find one’s self both sunburnt and still burnt out!
Susannah Fox says
When I started looking for an image for this post on Flickr, I think I searched for “highway” in the sense of “the road ahead” (whether that means toward a vacation destination or a career milestone is up to the viewer). I chose this one because of the solar flare, implying a danger of getting burned (and THEN I noticed the caption “Death Valley ahead”).
Thanks for the book recommendations. When I took a sabbatical after 10 years at Pew Internet, I created an ambitious reading list and loved working through it. One product of that sabbatical was “Mind the Gap: Peer-to-peer Healthcare” (a talk I gave at NIH weaving together all that I’d been studying and reading) which led to me eventually leaving Pew Internet! That’s the danger of giving an employee time off — they may realize they need to leave the organization and strike out on a different path.