Don’t think I’m making a recommendation without practicing it myself. I would’ve burned out if I didn’t employ methods to prevent it. I would’ve definitely not been able to work and be the type of mother to an autistic that I want to be if I hadn’t developed some strong life skills. I don’t like to call them survival skills because the term “survival skills” has a negative connotation to it. Survival indicates that may be we are facing some form of situation in which we might not survive. And the life skills that I’ve developed aren’t just for survival. They’re for forming a strong human connection and empathetic bond with people in our personal and professional life.
The first skill that I developed was to know my environment. And I’m using the term “environment” in a much broader term that just our immediate surroundings. To me, every relationship has a general attitude and environment. This attitude and environment about our relationship with various things contributes to our overall well-being. Let me give you an example.
If you aren’t in a totally copacetic relationship with your neighbor, what’s going to happen when you see him? You’ll likely wrap up whatever you’re doing and try to run back into your house. You’ll feel a stress coming on when you see this neighbor at the grocery store. Instead of feeling familiarity which is a happy feeling, you’ll feel awkward and start thinking of ways to avoid being spotted by him. This isn’t a stress-free situation. This situation is stressful just due to the sheer demands it’s putting on our mind, mood and may be even our disposition.
This is why maintaining positive relationships is important. But how do we make positive relationships? By assigning a meaning to them. When all our relationships have a meaning assigned to them and we know that the meaning defines the relationship, more likely than not we try to obtain positive experiences out of our interactions.
You may ask “But how do we assign a meaning to every relationship?” I know it’s hard. It’s hard enough to have a relationship with strangers, let alone assigning a meaning to it. Most people would take the easy way out and not engage with strangers at all. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But some strangers are important people actually. In my case, my in-laws were strangers when I got married to my husband but they were important people. My patients are strangers usually but are the most important people in a given moment. My colleagues were strangers when I started but have become very important people to me, at least for twelve hours of every day.
When you are in close contact with people that you don’t know but have to live with or have dinner with in an intimate setting or work with or (in case of physicians and healthcare providers) , be with them in their most vulnerable moment, the human connection isn’t just important. It becomes necessary.
The other skill that I developed was to establish the human connection. This was so important for me to not feel left out and lonely. Let me take you on a little journey through the years and how I came into my own, not because I’ve become an excellent, no-fault physician but because I’ve identified my support system. And by identifying my support system, I have made myself somewhat resistant to burn out.
When I started as a young physician I was scared. I have realized, several years later, that I was scared not for what my job responsibilities were but who to turn to if I didn’t know what to do. I had the constant fear of coming across some clinical enigma that would leave me stumped and without a clue. Asking for help was something that, in my mind, good professionals didn’t do. I should know all the answers, I told myself constantly. I was surrounded by very helpful people who helped orient me to my new job and were always available but my own reservation with asking for help when I needed it led me to feel isolated and unsupported. Needless to say I was spending twice the time that other physicians were at the hospital and had fast started to feel that my career as a hospitalist wasn’t going to be sustainable just because of the amount of time it asked of me.
I talked to a colleague about it and he answered simply ” You should ask for help when you need it”.
“Yes! We are all here to help you. Ask for help if you need it. No one declines their help when we ask for it”.
This suggestion, although utterly simple in its essence, solved my burn out problem. I realized that I was feeling what I was feeling because I hadn’t yet owned this place as my own, these people as my colleagues, this place as my second home. Even though I spent at least half my day here.
This simple advice opened the doors of many amazing work relationships for me. I became more open about asking for help. My colleague removed my hesitation around asking for help and back up by making me aware of the fact that we all depend on each other in some capacity. He removed the loneliness that I was feeling. He made me see my colleagues as not just colleagues and workmates but also friends. Friends that I could contact for help.
The culture of help shouldn’t even need a formal introduction or establishing. It should always be there. It should be implied. But it’s not. There is a certain shame around the concept of needing someone at work. It implies vulnerability. It implies some sort of weakness. It implies a lack of professional knowledge.
Asking for help is actually anything but weakness and deficiency.
Sure we ask for help when we need it and are likely feeling a little resourceless. Needing help is borne out of circumstances that we hadn’t counted on. Help is not something we’d live off of but is indispensable when we need it. But think about this! When we ask for help, we are trusting another person with a vulnerable moment of ours. We are actually placing our trust in another person whom we don’t know much beyond work. In that moment we are establishing a relationship of camaraderie, trust, empathy. We are establishing a human connection. We are reaching out, baring our soul and being honest. Right there, just by doing that, we have shown immense strength of character. We have shown a humanistic value that needed courage showing. This act of asking for help empowers us in knowing that we are a human with positive enough experiences so far in life to be able to count on another human being. We have not only removed the stigma with asking for help, we have also removed the cynicism that the human culture reserves for the request for help. In this moment, we have claimed another human being as our community member. We have made a silent pact of “help me and be friends”, “help me and I’ll have your back too” and “help me and let me trust you”. All powerful, character-building feelings.
The culture of help and helpfulness promotes compassion, camaraderie at work, equality, friendliness, fraternity, community and on some level, a connection of a deep human understanding of our colleague. It fortifies our trust in humanity. This is its biggest gift to us.
Just as asking for help opens up the human connection, offering help also breaks communication barriers down. It instantly gives the feeling of having a friend. It also brings us closer together due to emotional bonding. When we offer help we are not just offering help. We are offering our time and that means a lot to people.
Sometimes, help is needed in the form of just a person to vent with. Life happens and we aren’t feeling the same feelings about life all the time. Offering time to talk is a huge help sometimes. And to be honest, each time I talked to someone because they needed to talk, I learned later that I needed to talk just as much as they did. It is a gratifying process for both people.
At home too I try to help maintain a culture of help. My husband and I openly express when we are feeling overwhelmed or overworked. We offer to do a little extra when one of us is sensing stress in the other. This has really worked to keep our physical and mental health good and our optimism going.
Asking for help can be a daunting task for some of us. Some of us, on the other hand, have been through it. We should start by offering help. That’s a lot easier to do. It has no self consciousness involved. When we offer help freely and openly, we establish the culture of help. When we establish the culture of help, we promote the culture of establishing the human connection. When there’s a lot of human connection around us, we automatically cut down on the risk of burn out.