Feeling burnt out? It may be more to do with your values than your workload
Burn out in general practitioners is real and prevalent. The latest RACGP Health of the Nation study found that more than seven in 10 GPs (71%) reported experiencing feelings of burnout in 2023. Not surprisingly, the rate of burnout is even higher among those who own their own practice: two in five practice owners responded that they have felt burnt out in the past 12 months.
However, recently published research (Prentice, Benson, Need, Pitot, & Elliott, 2023) that explored the link between burnout and personal values identified something unexpected: burnout is related to value fulfillment and that relationship is predictive (i.e. the less someone feels their values are being fulfilled, the more likely they are to experience burnout). And we don’t mean simply feeling fulfilled at work; indeed, the study found that when you feel your values are not being fulfilled in your life as a whole, you are most prone to burnout.
The findings do not minimise in any way the challenging impact of increasing workloads of our nation’s GPs; it’s well known that GPs regularly bear the brunt of systemic failures in our health system. Rather, it’s the combination of unmanageable workloads and a lack of value fulfillment that leads to burnout. Conversely, as Prentice et. al. suggest, resilience and wellbeing can be ‘replenished’ through value fulfillment (e.g., living and working in a way that aligns with your personal values).
While the research still needs to be replicated, it suggests exciting and holistic opportunities for intervention, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), with value fulfillment as a possible key strategy for addressing mental health and stress management and the promotion of wellbeing so we can flourish.
The costs of burnout
Burnout is associated with serious personal, social, organisational, and economic costs (Maslach, 2017). For example, burnout has been associated with impaired physical health, poor job performance and errors, absenteeism, high turnover, low morale and incivility, and a greater risk of mental illness such as depression and anxiety (Maslach, 2017). Erian, et al., (2023) reported in Insight that one in five junior doctors seriously considered leaving the profession; that doctors who reported signs of burnout were twice as likely to have made a medical error in the past three months, and that three out of five junior doctors who reported making clinical errors experienced severe stress.
Most recently, the RACGP (2023) reported that GPs’ overall job satisfaction had decreased from 77% in 2022 to 66% in 2023, and that there had also been an increase in those describing themselves as “very dissatisfied” in their roles.
So what is burn out, anyway? Could it be what you’re feeling right now?
Everyone responds to stress differently so no two people with burnout will present exactly the same. However, common signs and symptoms of burnout include:
- Reduced performance and productivity
- Feeling listless
- Low mood
- Low motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of creativity
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Lack of sleep
- An increasingly cynical outlook on life and work.
Why do people ‘burnout’?
Burnout is a complex issue. It does appear that some people may have a vulnerability to potentially becoming burnt out. However, where you work and your workplace’s culture are important factors to consider as well. Though individual factors influence who may experience burnout, such as personality traits (e.g., perfectionism and conscientiousness), past mental health history and family life, the overall findings from several decades of burnout research have found that situational, work, environmental factors and – most recently – value fulfilment seem to be as important for understanding burnout as personal factors.
What can I do to prevent burnout or if I experience it?
There are a multitude of strategies you can practice at home, at work or both. Many you will know, such as:
- follow healthy habits like exercise, sleep and eat well (e.g., eat more nutritious food, lose excess weight, engage in regular exercise, and quit smoking)
- practise meditation and relaxation exercises (e.g., reduce high arousal and achieve a state of calm though meditation, biofeedback, hot baths, and massages).
- seek support from colleagues, mentors, supervisors, friends and family. Support can take many forms, including assistance, feedback, emotional comfort, encouragement, recognition, and sharing humour.
- get professional assistance and support, such as through cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling or other therapies.
Others you may not have thought of, include:
- upskill yourself at work, such as your time management and/or conflict resolution skills. Called job crafting, negotiate different work conditions, patient types or levels of patient complexity, or reduce work hours to reduce your work stressors. If your workplace isn’t open to these changes, find a clinic which is.
- better manage work-life boundaries for a better overall balance, such as ensure you take your lunch breaks, avoid working consistently over-time, avoid taking work home, and do take time off for holidays/vacations.
- change your perception and response to workplace stressors (cognitive restructuring), such as changing one’s reactions, perspectives, job expectations, goals or work patterns.
- practice gratitude, such as through journaling or prayer.
- increase self-understanding and awareness (e.g., increase understanding of your personal strengths and weaknesses, your personality traits, needs and motives, and your coping mechanisms).
- practice self-compassion (being kind to self as opposed to self-critical or judgemental).
- practice mindfulness.
- manage your self-talk differently, such as reinterpreting other people’s behaviour or recognising that thoughts are not facts and do not need to be treated as such.
Our top tips for preventing and managing burnout
- Clarify what is important to you (your values) and review whether these are reflected in the clinic you work for. The more congruent your values are with those of your workplace, the more likely this will help buffer you from the effects of burnout. Not sure what your values are? Try this free Values in action quiz.
- Try Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and its emphasis on value fulfillment as a way to prevent and/or manage burnout.
- Manage boundaries and expectations – this may include boundaries with patients regarding how long your consults are or how many issues you can address in one consult; or boundaries with your workplace regarding what out-of-work hours you will complete during the week.
- Notice your thoughts and how you talk to yourself. What is your self-talk like? Not sure what to do? Watch this video for ideas: the Stageshow metaphor.
- Reflect on your stress response. Understanding how you respond to stress is the first step to recognising when you are stressed and therefore doing something about it.
- Don’t wait to do something about it. Often people think “this isn’t a good time” or “I’m too busy to do anything about it at the moment” but you are important. Therefore, the time spent on reflecting how you’re feeling and what to do about it, is worthwhile and well-spent.
At GPEx we are committed to helping healthcare professionals prevent and manage burnout so we’ve developed a high quality and free online Beating Burnout course.
Not sure how to implement the tips and suggestions for preventing and managing burnout on your own? Or have you tried in the past but have struggled to sustain the changes made? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then we recommend Beating Burnout + Coaching which gives you the full Beating Burnout course together with one-on-one coaching. In partnership with your Coach, you’ll devise effective strategies and behaviours that you can adopt now and into the future to beat burnout once and for all.
Erian, C., Bade, D., & Erian, M. (2023). Burnout in medicine leading to clinical errors and ‘severe stress’. Insight, Issue 41. Accessed 12/11/23: https://insightplus.mja.com.au/2023/41/burnout-in-medicine-leading-to-clinical-errors-and-severe-stress/
Maslach, C. (2017). Finding solutions to the problem of burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(2), 143.
Prentice, S., Benson, J., Need, P., Pitot, M., & Elliott, T. (2023). Personal value fulfillment predicts burnout and wellbeing amongst Australian General Practitioners. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health. doi:10.1080/15555240.2023.2256977
RACGP (2023). General Practice Health of the Nation. https://www.racgp.org.au/general-practice-health-of-the-nation-2023