Burnout and self-care for bioethicists


Keisha Ray

Publish date

June 16, 2016

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Like many bioethicists, I often have to research disturbing parts of American culture for various writing projects. Topics like rape, gun violence, sexism, and medical racism are often times the subjects of my scholarly articles and blogs. Many times, I have to research how these topics play out in our everyday lives, forcing me to research popular and heart-breaking news stories such as the Orlando night club shooting or the recent Stanford rape case. Because of technology, social media, and the always handy cell phone, my research often requires me to read or watch the testimonies of witnesses to heinous crimes, crime scene photos, and/or videos of murders. During my research I encounter articles written by hateful and bigoted people, but as a good researcher, I have to read their vile words as well. Sometimes my research hits a little too close to home and prompts me to think about the possibility of these disturbing occurrences happening to me, my family, or my friends. While doing research on these kinds of topics, I, understandably can feel frustrated with the world, angry, sad, hopeless, and especially discouraged. My current research project on victim-blaming has me feeling especially angry and discouraged right now, but it is also forcing me to think about how I can take care of my emotional and mental health so that I can continue what I believe to be meaningful work.

Medical educators often teach medical students and physicians how to prevent burnout, how to recognize burnout, and how to treat burnout. In my own medical school classes, my students frequently talk about their concerns with burnout. Many believe that they are already experiencing burnout and worry that once they are practitioners the feeling of burnout will worsen. Medical students are right to be worried about burnout, considering the demands of the job and the mental, emotional, and job-related effects of burnout. Also, considering that physicians have a high risk of dying by suicide, burnout is a real concern. Because students are also taught to think about their patients, burnout is also a concern considering how it also impacts patients (A burned out physician is not an effective physician).

My students and I also frequently discuss how to recognize burnout among caregivers of mentally and/or physically disabled family members, or among adult children who care for their elderly and/or demented parents. Burnout among this population is especially worrisome because the caregiver as well as their loved ones, who are made vulnerable by disease or injury can experience the adverse effects of burnout. But how do we talk about burnout among academics in the medical community, like bioethicists? Particularly those whose research forces them to explore the social malaises that are frequently the headlining story on the evening news?

There are some articles written about burnout among academic professors that bring attention to the stresses of an academic job, such as being overworked. There are even some sources that detail the so-called four stages of burnout: physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, shame and doubt, cynicism, and helplessness (in the same vein as the five stages of grief). But what I think is left to be explored is how burnout specifically impacts bioethicists like myself whose work requires us to dive into the dark and ugly parts of humanity that can be easily ignored for the much more rosy and sunny parts of humanity.

A part of the nature of burnout is the desire to discontinue your emotionally draining research project and move on to something else, a happier project. I have been guilty of doing this myself. When past research projects have sucked the emotional life out of me, I have moved on to other projects. But the nagging belief that I’m contributing to a culture that does not talk about the “hard stuff” brought me back to these projects. Also, the belief that academics have certain skills that can illuminate the issues surroundings the “hard stuff” brought me back to my research. There was also the problem of believing that I’m leaving the burden of these hard issues for the next academic and the possibility that I’m a part of a cycle of academics who always think that someone else will talk about these issues.

This way of thinking about researching hard topics is not unique to bioethicists but what is unique to bioethicists is that none of the staple topics of our profession are easy and our research on these topics impacts practitioners and their patients who we are called to be advocates for through research and clinical and governmental policy influence. Just as patients have much at stake if their physicians and caregivers experience burnout, patients can suffer if bioethicists suffer burnout as well. Healthcare works best and patients get the care they need when everyone who is a part of the medical community is at their best, including bioethicists.

If burnout is a troubling side-effect of the job, then self-care among bioethicists needs more promotion in the profession. Learning how to mentally, emotionally, and spiritually rejuvenate our lives keeps us personally healthy but also the profession healthy. We have to take breaks, meditate, enjoy nature, be active, enjoy time with family and friends, watch something other than the news and read articles about something other than the latest social tragedy. We have to learn to care for ourselves so that we can contribute to solutions to social problems rather than be a part of the problem that sweeps these problems under the rug. In other words, we have to do more than teach lessons about burnout and self-care to medical students and physicians, but we need to become the practitioners and implement those lessons in our own careers.

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