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It Is Okay To Not Be Okay: Thoughts On Physician Self-Care

Physician burnout is real. That is not a surprise to any of us. In the last few years, physician burnout appears to be more recognizable and perhaps more understood than in the past. In this time of COVID-19, however, the potential for burnout has become a part of everyday life. Fortunately, there are resources out there that are available to help. Unfortunately, though, I feel like there is still a stigma around reaching out or around those who do seek help. If physicians do not make their feelings or struggles known for whatever reason, how do we help? How do we move forward or expect things to ever change? How do physicians stay safe and healthy while fighting every day to help our patients do the same? 

I know many of you reading this do not know me from the next podiatrist. In my life, though, I know that sometimes I just need someone to tell me it is okay. Well, here it goes. It is okay to not be okay. 

It is important to realize that in the time of COVID-19, we all have additional stress and pressures upon us. While vaccines on the horizon may be promising, the pandemic has already stretched out for close to a year and does not have a clear end in sight. That said, it is also important to acknowledge that life before COVID-19 was also likely not stress-free. We all provide care for other people: our patients, our family and our friends. While caring for others is our chosen path, we cannot forget to care for ourselves. 

Self-care is not easy. Caring for others likely comes very naturally and easily for all of us. While we think nothing of going the extra mile for our patients or our loved ones, we would not even think to go a tenth of a mile for ourselves. We may intellectually know how important self-care is yet we still erect barriers to implementing a plan or routine. Our professional lives can be very hectic, potentially even more so during this pandemic. Balancing an increased workload as well as a personal life definitely sets us up for an understandable lack of energy. We can often make it through our day and “crash” once we arrive home, making it difficult to carve out time for self-care. Along those same lines, when we do get home from work, our day usually is not over. There are still multiple responsibilities with family, friends, pets and our home. Again, this can make it seemingly insurmountable to add one more task or responsibility to our day. 

Of course, there is also the fear of appearing weak. We are in a respected profession and are often leaders in our communities. Doctors may experience the feeling, often self-imposed, of needing to be strong and not showing vulnerability. 

Any or all of these factors can certainly influence the practice of self-care. 

There are certainly many different varieties of self-care, many of which require minimal time and no monetary commitment. Of course, no matter what, you should choose what will fit best with your lifestyle and needs. 

Right now, as we are going through this additional stress, it is likely that many in your office or clinic feel the same way. A socially distanced walk during a break with a colleague can benefit both of you. You can each share some thoughts, concerns, hopes or even fears, depending on your respective comfort levels. 

Some medical practices have programs to assist their staff with respect to guidance or counseling during this time as well. If not, one might implement Zoom sessions of yoga or guided meditation. It is not always easy to take a break during the workday but it can absolutely be beneficial. After work, journaling, meditation or mindfulness can be helpful. 

Also, outside of work, put the phone and work worries aside. Be present and in the moment when you are with your family and loved ones. This is crucial. Lastly, remember to treat yourself as you would treat others, being kind to yourself through positive words and thoughts. 

Although I wrote this piece with my fellow podiatrists in mind, obviously this applies to members of the health care community as well as our communities at large. Our coworkers and colleagues are all in this with us each and every day. Please keep these self-care ideas in mind and share them with those you know. Remember, it is okay to not be okay.  

Dr. Hook is a Trustee of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association, Chair of the NYSPMA Public Education and Information Committee, and a sub-Chair of the American Board of Podiatric Medicine Membership Committee in the Crisis Communication and Audit division. She is the Secretary of the American Association for Women Podiatrists and is in private practice at Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists in Syracuse, N.Y. 

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By Stephanie Hook, DPM, DABPM, FACPM
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