How to cultivate wellness WITHIN the workplace (not just outside of it).

It’s no secret that I’m a fierce advocate for the importance of self care (check out my feature in the recent edition of EVMS magazine highlighting the necessary wellness-focused culture shift in American medical training below). Some of the issues I’m most passionate about within the medical field are humanism in medicine, burnout, the power of personal narrative in healthcare, physician wellness and resiliency (and that of all healthcare providers for that matter)–and central to all of this is the relationship we have with ourselves first. Did you know that an entire medical school’s worth of physicians commit suicide each year? Or that medical students are two to five times more likely to experience depression than the general population? And that 28% of resident physicians experience a major depressive episode during training, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention? What this tells us is that the burden we’ve historically placed on our health professionals and professionals-in-training is unmanageable and that a change in culture is imperative if we want our providers to be around long enough to actually care for the patients they’ve trained for.
A little while back when I was interviewing for residency in Emergency Medicine, because we’re finally starting to wake up to the cultural inadequacies in medicine that have always been and it was an area of interest reflected throughout my applications, much of the dialogue was dominated by discussions of wellness. One of my favorite questions I was asked along the interview trail (by none other than my now Program Director at Stanford) was “Amidst all the talk about work-life balance, how do you find balance when you’re actually at work? We can’t just run off every time things get hectic, so what does wellness look like then?”
With much greater brevity (because we EM docs have notoriously non-existent attention spans–and hey, ‘know your audience,’ right?), this is what I said:

So often when we talk about taking care of ourselves, our minds jump straight into vacation mode–mentally calculating just how much longer we have to wait for the chance to check-out, ditch the stress of daily life and get away for a while to re-boot. Traveling is one of my favorite things in this world, but sometimes it’s just not realistic or practical to drop everything and hop on a plane or even in the car. Wouldn’t it be great then, if we could create a working environment where we felt so inspired and supported that we didn’t need to escape from it to feel good?

On that note, here are a few of my personal tips for cultivating balance within the workplace rather than just outside of it:

  1. Choose endeavors that light you on fire. There are seemingly limitless worthwhile pursuits in any chosen career field, and just because they’re interesting and useful and maybe even lucrative doesn’t mean that they’re your calling. You’ll know when you’ve found your “thing(s),” because you’ll feel energized rather than drained by pursuing it. If you’re not sure what that is yet, start by considering when or where you feel most like yourself. What do you always seem to make time for? How might you be able to incorporate that experience into your professional life? And go from there. Life is to be enjoyed, not endured.
  2. Seek out (or if you don’t have that luxury then create!) a supportive work environment. We’re only as strong as the people supporting us. So learn to ask for help and likewise be willing to give it. A one-man show is tiresome and non-sustainable no matter how fiery the passion. When you like the people you work with, the workplace will become somewhere you actually want to be.
  3. Incorporate small acts of wellness into your daily routine. Sometime during my second year of medical school, it felt like the collective morale was at an all time low. We were deep into the depths of lectures and bookwork and studying for boards but so far away from the actual patient care that would render all the rigorous and sometimes tedious preparation worthwhile. Around that time I was asked to give a presentation on practical tools for promoting student wellness as a part of the monthly campus-wide Dean’s Hour Series. Being the yoga-lover that I am, I chose to teach a simple invigorating chair yoga sequence that could be done while seated in the lecture hall or office to break up the monotony of back to back lectures/long hours at a desk and a breathing exercise known as the “4-7-8 breath” to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system in times of stress. Maybe for you it’s a self-mandated two minute break every hour. Eating right. Drinking water. Sneaking outside for a moment of sunshine mid-shift. Decorating your space so that it feels like home. Find what works for you and make a commitment to weave it into your work flow.
  4. Don’t live and die by your daily victories or defeats. We all need to develop a certain resiliency to exist in the world of medicine and the highs and lows are simultaneously both fleeting and and never-ending. Your saves and misses have absolutely nothing to do with your self-worth (thank god), so don’t make it about you. Make it about your learning and the care you’ll provide to future patients and move on.
  5. I know I said this list was about wellness within the workplace, but here’s a single point on maximizing your time outside of it so that you can arrive back fresh and with energy to give: When you are off, be OFF. Disconnect. Hold the guilt (it serves absolutely no one). Leave work at work, otherwise you might as well have never left in the first place. A work ethic based on self sacrifice and deprivation is not sustainable–this time off is just as integral to your professional development as time spent in the hospital or clinic.
  6. Make sure to sleep. A lot. As much as possible. Choose it over (almost) everything else. When you’re a groggy sleep-deprived mess, life is basically shit.

Featured in the recent edition of EVMS Magazine.
How do YOU take care of you while at work? Share below!

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