Flashback Friday: Burnout, what lies beneath? | AMA (WA)


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Flashback Friday: Burnout, what lies beneath?

Friday May 7, 2021

Rahil Ajmera, President Curtin Association of Medical Students

Burnout is a term frequently used by physicians and medical students alike, however, most discussions on the issue rarely venture beyond the superficial.

It is a well-recognised norm that has become a rite of passage in a medical career; a barrier that students and doctors must overcome.

This normalisation of pushing through excessive stress and overwhelming exhaustion is an aspect of medicine that has frustrated me in my short journey as a medical student.

It is classified as as occupational phenomenon in WHO’s International Classification of diseases and is a “syndrome… resulting from chronic workplace stress, that has not been managed”. Beyond Blue’s National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students found that 47.5 per cent of 18-30 year-olds reported emotional exhaustion. A disheartening systematic review established that burnout may continue beyond medical school and can lead to suicidal ideation and psychiatric disorders.

My personal experiences with burnout have been the catalyst for writing this article. There is a growing sentiment among my peers that in order to succeed as a medical student, the prioritisation of studying over all else is essential.

This has developed into a damaging romanticism of relentless productivity, resulting in a diminishing work-life balance. I have fallen victim to this cycle, as have many other students, and my major concern is the underestimation of this issue by both students and the university.

The conversation around mental health has been growing and is slowly being de-stigmatised, but this is not enough. While students, professors and doctors all entertain the idea that long-term stress and fatigue is a constituent of being a doctor, the impact of a healthy conversation around burnout is undermined.

The detrimental influence of this culture that has cultivated over the years has been evidenced by the routine undervaluing of our wellbeing.

Andrew Tabner describes this perfectly when talking about physician suicide” We aren’t just implicated a profession through passive inaction; we have contributed… through the perpetuation of unhealthy attitudes, impossible expectations and a tyranny of perfection.”

While there is still scope to grow, major strides have been made in the mental health space. The initiatives undertaken by by both student groups and universities, while still underdeveloped, forms the backbone for the establishment of key strategies in the future.

Conversations around burnout are being held more than ever before. Self-awareness of damaging work practices is increasing. Recognition of the need for sustainable goals is growing.

Despite what I’ve written, there will probably always be elements of burnout in medicine.

But what we can change is our attitudes, expectations and responses to it.