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Physicians should look inward to keep from burning out


How one physician turned his recovery from burnout into a leadership program that’s shifted the culture in his medical system.

Five years ago, Tom Jenike, MD, senior vice president of Novant Health, a North Carolina based medical group, struggled to keep hold of the joy in practicing medicine he’d felt earlier in his 19-year career. He couldn’t take in the praise of patients, felt that he was constantly letting patients, colleagues and family members down, and was spread too thin in non-patient-related obligations, which eroded his sense of well-being. He also had trouble sleeping.

“My predominant emotion was not happy; it was stress and pressure,” says Jenike.

Not yet aware that he was suffering from burnout, he chose to work with an executive coach for professional development, which turned out to be the intervention he needed. The coaching process forced him to turn inward and look at what Jenike calls “my own internal conditions” that were contributing to his burnout.

“A lot of the circumstances I found myself in, I realized I’d actually put myself in,” he says. Being driven to be all things to all patients is a common theme in physicians, he admits, but “no one made me say ‘yes’ to all of these committees. No one said that I had to stay late and take that extra patient every time.”

With the help of his coach, he found the courage to say “no” to things that were not as necessary and to remove commitments that were stealing his time and energy, so he could focus on what was most important.

“It made practicing medicine more fun again,” Jenike says.

He was so impressed with his personal turnaround that he approached Novant Health’s chief executive officer about rolling out a trial program for other physicians. “Most places deal with physician burnout when it becomes a safety problem, a quality problem, or a health problem. I wanted to create something to get out in front of it and be more proactive,” he says.


Creating a culture shift

The Novant Health Leadership Development Program is focused on the individual doctor, not the medical system. In a three-day retreat, physicians are asked to reflect on their own thought patterns, feelings and general satisfaction with health and wellness, spirituality, even how much fun they have in their lives. They also encourage individuals to get feedback from people in their personal and work lives to ask, “What’s it like to be around me?” he says.

“The magic is getting people to slow down for long enough to get a good look at their lives,” Jenike says.

Burnout often shows up first in people’s personal lives and it can take years before physicians see the connection to their work lives.

Jenike says he’s most proud of how the program has caused a culture shift in his own medical system. “We changed the conversation from ‘We don’t talk about burnout’ to ‘Of course we talk about the realistic nature that we work in a very intense environment and that has an impact on you, too,’” he says.

He receives regular calls from colleagues who will say they’re worried about one of their partners and ask him about the program.

This is understandable given how good the results are: Participants in the program scored as much as 50% higher on measures related to personal fulfillment and engagement with their work than those who didn’t.

What moves Jenike most of all are the testimonials he receives from physicians who went through the program.

“I was expecting it to have some impact,” he says, “But I wasn’t expecting people to say ‘This changed my life,’ or ‘This saved my career.’ People say this is the most impactful thing they’ve done in their professional career.”


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