‘I just can’t tell another woman she has breast cancer’ – from burnout to empathy and compassion, starting with yourself
Twenty years ago, a Consultant Oncologist told me that she couldn’t tell another woman she had breast cancer; she never worked again. Her experience of medical compassion fatigue, which is sadly increasingly common, sparked my interest in workplace health and eventually led me to my own current role working with doctors in leadership roles and in career difficulty.
I believe that with a triple approach of mental health care, occupational health, and expert career coaching, this dedicated clinician could have been successfully rehabilitated back to work, on her own terms.
I spent the first half of my career working in the field of mental health improvement and workplace health as a public health physician, fully grounded in evidence based interventions. Over the last few years of working as a medical career coach with scores of doctors experiencing career difficulty, I’ve seen first hand that developing self empathy is one of the first steps to prevent or recover from physician burnout.
Empathy for oneself is a skill to be learned, and can be taught at any age or career stage. Like any new skill, it requires a degree of conscious effort in the early stages until it becomes ‘second nature’ ie the neural pathways are laid down to be more self compassionate. This is also one aspect of ‘compassion training’ for clinicians.
It’s actually one of my favourite career coaching interventions, I love seeing clients ‘light up’ when they gain insight into what is available to them in terms of relating to themselves in a different way.
Try the ‘compassionate hand’ exercise, for example, on yourself today. When you notice that something feels difficult for you, place your hand over your heart and simply acknowledge ‘this is difficult for me’. Take a moment before rushing into a finding a solution, so that you have time to connect with the difficult feeling, and then ask yourself ‘what can I do right now that would be helpful for me to move forwards?’. This action step is personal to you and your context, and could be anything from a discussion with your managers about the situation, to making a cup of tea for yourself and a colleague, to reminding yourself about what you love about your work.
Medical burnout can have a domino effect in a team and impact on morale and patient outcomes. By learning some simple techniques through expert medical career coaching, you can take skillful action to protect yourself and your colleagues, build greater connection with your family and your patients, and regain the emotional energy you need to thrive in today’s workplace.
Dr Fiona Day (MBChB, FFPH, Dip Occ Med, ILM 7 Executive Coaching and Mentoring) is a Leadership and Career Coach and helps Doctors and Healthcare Professionals to succeed as Leaders and to improve their careers and working lives, using evidence based psychological theory and behaviour change science. Download a free career planning workbook and find out more at www.fionadayconsulting.co.uk; to explore working with Fiona please book a confidential half hour Career Consultation here.
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