Like most people, Gary L. LeRoy, MD, a primary care physician in Dayton, Ohio, usually just wants to go home after work. He puts in long days as an assistant dean at Wright State University's Boonshoft School of Medicine and doing clinical work at the East Dayton Health Center, where he's practices for two decades.
Still, he finds time for an impressive list of volunteer obligations, including hours at a local free clinic, homeless shelter, the Red Cross and local schools.
“I have to admit that sometimes when my volunteer night at the clinic comes up, I go somewhat begrudgingly. I’ve worked all day and I feel kind of burnt out,” LeRoy says. “Without fail, those hugs and handshakes make you feel, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s why I keep coming back to this thing.’
“I’m dragging in the door, and I’m skipping out.”
The hugs and handshakes prove his volunteer work helps others. The “skipping out” proves that’s it’s somehow helping him too.
A ‘game-changer’ against burnout
It’s a refrain repeated by other physicians who give away their time to charitable causes: Volunteering has its own rewards. And the research bears it out. After adjusting for socio-demographic factors, multiple studies have shown that adults who volunteer enjoy better mental and physical health and lower mortality rates.
For physicians, there are additional benefits. Volunteering, even to causes unrelated to medicine, can be a sort of inoculation against what’s become an epidemic of physician burnout, says Gail Gazelle, MD, FACP, FAAHPM, a hospice and palliative care physician in Boston who also provides executive coaching for physicians and physician leaders.
Primary care doctors are especially at risk, she says, because they deal with problems that have no easy fixes, including rising costs, government scrutiny and administrative hassles. “Doctors become disconnected from their sense of meaning and purpose and accomplishment,” Gazelle says. “That’s the biggest problem with burnout.”
Even as they continue to help patients, doctors can begin to feel isolated, that they are not accomplishing much, that they’ve lost a sense of meaning in their work. Emotional depletion, feelings of inadequacy, cynicism and depersonalization soon follow. One client Gazelle coaches, an oncologist, told her that interactions with patients had started to feel like “business transactions.”
Volunteering can be an antidote, Gazelle says. “Volunteering is like a dose of ‘I’m efficacious and I have things to contribute in the world,’” she says. “It’s kind of like a reset, to help somebody get back on the path of being able to see the worthiness of what they do and then their inherent worth.”