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How To Stay Warm But Not Burnt Out


While I was reminded of why I am going to hire movers next time I move, I was also reminded of another fact I had heard about volunteering, medicine, and burnout.

A friend of the family asked for help moving the other day. Wanting to teach my son a character lesson, I dragged him along to help. While straining and "feeling the burn" moving a big, heavy piece of furniture, the thought came across my mind that it would make more financial sense to work as a physician for an hour or two and donate that money to pay for movers instead of donating my time and atrophied, burnt-out muscles. But I had to remind myself how volunteering is good for the soul, that friendships aren't a function of money, and that my son was learning a life lesson.

While I was reminded of why I am going to hire movers next time I move, I was also reminded of another fact I had heard about volunteering, medicine, and burnout.

In the medical realm, volunteerism is associated with lower burnout. Although surveys have consistently shown this correlation, that does not necessarily mean causation. But what if there were a way to randomize people in medicine to "volunteering?" (Yes, I am aware that "forced volunteerism" is an oxymoron). That would be a sure way to know if volunteering as an intervention causes decreased burnout.

Enter medical school service learning, where medical students are “forced” to do a service project as part of their education, which is costing them upwards of hundreds of dollars per day, mind you. While there has been a tremendous amount of work done to implement service learning in medical schools including at least one randomized controlled trial, it is unclear if volunteering in and before medical school will lead to long-term volunteering or protection from burnout. However, randomized volunteering through service learning did (at least in the short term) improve attitudes among future doctors of the population they served.

Here are a few recommendations for avoiding burnout:

1. Keep a big-picture perspective. It is easy to get overwhelmed or burned out from dealing with the little annoyances. Every job has pro's and con's.

2. In line with a big-picture perspective, grade the importance and urgency of things to do. Consider a quadrant diagram, with the vertical axis being importance and the horizontal axis being urgency. (This idea is from the 3rd of seven habits in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.) Set aside time every day to do what is in the “important but non-urgent” quadrant, otherwise your life will be taken over by the more urgent stuff regardless of its importance.

3. Other examples of things can be found at the AMA’s website including:

· Do a duty at your practice that you enjoy

· Actually take vacations

· Maintain your health

· Openly communicate

· Pursue something outside of medicine

· Establish an environment of wellness

4. Volunteer to help a friend or family member move heavy furniture to better appreciate not having to do back-breaking physical labor for a living (unless, of course, you are an orthopedic surgeon and already do back-breaking labor).

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