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How Health Care Providers Can Mitigate Burnout

Image of U.S. Army Soldiers load a simulated patient on to a New Jersey National Guard UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter during a combat lifesaver course run by the Medical Simulation Training Center on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, April 14, 2022.  (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht). U.S. Army Soldiers load a simulated patient on to a New Jersey National Guard UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter during a combat lifesaver course run by the Medical Simulation Training Center on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, April 14, 2022. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht)

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When the demands of the mission mount up, all military service members can be at risk of burnout.

Turning to health care providers for help is a good option.

But what about the health care providers themselves?

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the men and women who run the military health system have faced an enormous workload, with seemingly no end in sight. That can put health care professionals at significant risk.

"No one is immune to burnout," stated Air Force Reserve psychologist Lt. Col. Jennifer Gillette.

"Healthcare providers are very good at rescuing others. We train for it and practice it daily. Unfortunately, we often do so at the expense of our own health and wellness," said Gillette, who serves in support of the Air Force director of psychological health at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency.

Key symptoms of burnout among health care providers include feeling tired and fatigued as well as headaches, muscle tension, and stomach distress. Gillette said burnout can also lead to poor sleep, over-eating, or heavy drinking.

Lesser-known symptoms include emotional disconnection or feeling detached from peers or coworkers. Becoming insensitive, sarcastic, or cynical can also be a sign of burnout, leading to a lack of empathy towards patients or feelings of personal incompetence.

Overall, it can significantly impact patient care, productivity, and organizational success. For military health care professionals, taking care of yourself is a key part of the mission.

"We must take care of ourselves if we want to prevent it. For example, we can't expect our cars to keep running if we don't fill them up with gas and take them in for regular maintenance."

"If we just keep driving without taking care of our cars or ourselves, we will find ourselves broken down on the side of the road calling for help," she said.

Seeking Help

A key step to addressing burnout is simply to reach out.

"We want to make sure that we're looking for social support," said Lt. Col. Catherine Callendar, deputy director of psychological health for the Air Force. "That may sound very simplistic, but the reality is, there's so much research that tells us when we talk to somebody that we feel is supportive of us, there are positive neurochemical changes that take place in the brain."

"And we really do feel better for very tangible reasons. So, seeking social support, and talking to friends, and family really can prove very beneficial to us."

Gillette says one of the keys to prevention is self-awareness.

"Practicing mindfulness can help us learn to tune into ourselves more, takes us off autopilot, and helps us become more aware of the present moment," Gillette said.

Some of her other suggestions:

  • Self-care practices like exercise, yoga and sleeping at least seven hours a night
  • Create (and stick to) a morning routine
  • Remind yourself of the value and purpose in your work
  • Make sure you maintain some work-life balance
  • Go for a walk or a nature hike
  • Take time away from all digital devices

All service members, especially health care providers, should take time to support their colleagues and, when needed, seek that support.

"When I ask active duty members about their time in the military, they often say the best part about their service is the amazing friends they've met over the years. When I ask veterans what they miss, they say the camaraderie and the brotherhood. People want to feel a sense a belongingness. If going to work is where your tribe is and where you feel supported, included, and valued, you'll enjoy going to work," Gillette said.

Gillette describes positive coping strategies as a sort of "psychological first aid kit."

"Most of us have a medical first aid kit that has band-aids and a variety of medicinal aids in it. But how many of us have a psychological first aid kit when we sustain an emotional injury?"

"This kit could include a reminder to call a friend who makes you laugh or to go out for a run at your favorite park. It could have some motivational speakers you like to listen to or your favorite motivational quotes, and your favorite inspirational songs or sayings."

"Your kit should be full of reminders to implement positive coping strategies. My kit has a piece of paper telling me to spend 60 seconds writing a list of everything I'm grateful for."

Gillette also warned that diet plays a role in burnout.

"We are less likely to eat the foods that are good for us when we are burned out," Gillette advised. Instead, she stated, we are more likely to gravitate towards comfort food. Failing to get the vitamins and nutrients our bodies need can negatively impact both our body and brain.

"Remember to get that green smoothie that you love," she suggested. "You'll say, 'I feel like I took care of myself today.' There is such a good feeling that comes from taking care of yourself."

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