Why the Physician “Burnout” Label May Miss the Mark

in Physician Coaching Insights

I am not fond of using the word “burnout” in our coach training programs. Shock!! Why? Because from a coach’s perspective, we want to support the direction our physician clients want to go. Physician clients typically want to go towards fulfillment, joy, satisfaction, energy, balance, or personal growth.

While this may seem like trivial word-smithing, this forward-looking perspective gets to the heart of coaching. A coach holds the space for the client to explore who they are at their core and what makes them more fulfilled.

If I assume that a physician is experiencing “burnout,” I might also assume their burnout is due to a heavy clinical load, or not enough time with their family, or frustration with administrative obstacles or the EMR. While this may reflect their situation to a degree, making these assumptions risks us missing the whole person.

Here is a case example to illustrate my point. A physician client asked for coaching after four years in clinical practice. He had a full practice and was doing well financially. In addition, he’d had an opportunity to participate in committees and enjoyed this business and operations activity very much.

As he was walking up the steps to his office one day, he experienced a ‘flash” of realization that unsettled him —- he was not enjoying himself. This realization was not one he accepted initially. After all, he had everything he aspired for, a busy practice and a happy home. But the feeling was hanging around like a cloud and it bothered him. He wondered if he was already getting burned out and so he attended a “burnout” workshop and also learned mindfulness. While he appreciated the sessions, he felt something was missing.

When he engaged in coaching, one of the first coaching processes we went through together as a partnership was a values clarification exercise. In his words, “the light bulb went off.” One of his core values was “builder” — he truly enjoyed initiating something and seeing it through to its conclusion. Indeed one of his hobbies was furniture-making because it was creative and there was a “beginning, a middle, and an end” to the project. As we delved further into this ONE core value, he had an epiphany that both surprised him and gave him a sense of relief: while he enjoyed his patients a
nd staff, the routine of day-to-day clinical duties was a bit boring for him. Nothing new to build, nothing to polish, nothing to complete. This awareness was liberating for him and began the first of many steps to fulfillment.

For this physician, the “solution” was not about taking more vacations or doing more mindfulness exercises. Rather, his personal exploration centered on how he could honor his very important value of “builder” in his medical life a physician. In what way could he craft his day-to-day so to live his “builder” value? What might he change or add for this core value to see more light?

Coaching provided the safe space, processes and structures for this physician to explore who he is outside the white coat. That is just one way coaching supports physician well-being.

–by Francine Gaillour, MD, Executive Director of the Physician Coaching Institute