Does being a doctor make you happy? From work-life balance to burnout

The medical profession is potentially one of the most risky professions. Dr. Ulrike Bossmann pleaded for physicians' self care despite pressure and stress.

What motivates people to become physicians?

The psychologist Dr. Ulrike Bossmann, (Karlsruhe, Germany) spoke about "Stress / Daily Life / Happiness - The view of behavioural and happiness research on the practitioner". She started with a surprising thesis: the medical profession is potentially one of the most dangerous professions. The argued reasons: The context of pain, suffering and death that the physician is confronted with, the many conflicts, the hierarchical balancing at work, the instances of mobbing, and workplace issues such as bureaucracy, economisation, or efficiency seeking.

Many physicians experience burnout, depression, and even substance abuse. The suicide rate is higher than in the general population. On one hand, physicians are capable of dealing with complex issues, but at the same time they are a particularly vulnerable group. When one in five physicians falls into burnout, the question for the psychologist is: What are the other four doing right? We know from the research: resilience and happiness are processes that are produced by habits and decisions. What are these habits and decisions?

There´s a problem to consider first: there are few professions where demands and everyday life may enter into conflict as much as in the medical profession. Physicians do not want to interrupt their patients after a short time, they do not want to withhold empathy from them. Yet they fall into such patterns when under pressure. Because when undergoing stress, people start to economise. This leads to a spiral of sacrifice and loss. Lunch, team meetings, and after-work hobbies are the first things to go away. But those who cut corners from taking proper care of themselves end up depleting their inner resources and strength.

That is why the psychologist explicitly pleaded for physicians to take good care of their inner balances despite time pressures and stress. Those who cut on self-care and on communication with others out of a lack of time, or else, put themselves under more and more pressure. Dr. Bossmann's message is clear: There is always more to do, and the work never ends. So the physician himself must draw the line and say 'that's enough for today.' Or even admit: 'I can't do it any more.' And then seek help.

Getting out of the downward spiral

Positive everyday experiences are crucial to get out of the loss spiral. This is known from partnership research. This includes consciously noticing good moments - for example, being proud of what you have achieved. Or regularly asking yourself the question in the evening: What was nice today?

The specific recommendation is: Don't focus one-sidedly on the job. Relationships are the most important source of happiness, so an important question to ask is: "am I surrounded by people I like?" Contact with patients are a part of this issue. That means, despite all the stress and pressure, that being aware of the human behind the patient, is important even if it is not always possible. Contact with patients are an important source of satisfaction. After all, that's why you became a physician, according to the psychologist.

Many physicians find themselves somewhere between self-sacrificing and self-dissolution, the attitude that "they can't do without me", and a cynical attitude to relationships. So an appropriate question to considering on your own is: "What am I no longer willing to do? Where are my limits?" Physicians should learn to distinguish: "Where am I really indispensable?"

Dr. Bossmann suggested another tip of advice: Resilient people create time for breaks, time for colleagues, family, and friends. And: It is good to always have a holiday ahead of you. Because the anticipation of the holiday is better than the holiday itself.

Prof. Debatin discusses physicians in other professions

In the same session, Prof. Jörg Felix Debatin, shared his analysis on the issue under the title "Is being a physician really everything? - Fulfilment as a physician beyond the clinic" (original German title: Ist Arzt sein wirklich alles? – Erfüllung als Arzt jenseits der Klinik).

Prof. Debatin has experienced and fulfilled many different roles and tasks in his professional life. The radiologist has been a clinic director, university lecturer, and digitalisation manager, among other things. He is currently Vice-President at GE Healthcare. The common thread in his professional life has been medicine. The formula for a successful career is not even a good plan, but luck, chance, and courage.

"Many people may envy us", Prof. Debatin argues. Physicians make an important contribution to making society a little better off, they are recognised helpers. They work quite successfully to prolong life and can be proud of what they achieve. So what are physicians particularly good for? They bring many things with them that are also in great demand in other areas outside the clinic: Their own medical know-how, empathy, flexibility, creativity. Physicians have an above-average amount of these.

Intelligence, and team work

Physicians are also increasingly team players - and no longer so much individual performers. Their advantage: they understand medical basics, react faster to incentives than other professional groups, recognise what is worthwhile and what is not, are used to complicated processes, and take responsibility.  

In short: they have their smarts, and it pays to be a physician. But of course there are other areas beyond the clinical setting for which they can be very well suited.

So where are physicians suited to work?

Often these are leadership roles. Here lies the positive role that physicians can take on. Physicians can be found in decisive positions in companies. Many physicians are politicians - there are some fifteen of them in the German parliament alone. Physicians are driving digitalisation in many places, not only in medicine. Prof. Debatin concludes: "Yes, there is fulfilment for physicians beyond the clinic. And as physicians, we would do well to fill the corresponding intersections with our know-how. Because these also have an influence on our medical environment as a whole. We physicians can have a great impact and achieve a great deal there."