After publishing and speaking on the topic, he became “more and more known for having expertise in burnout; all the while, I was working harder and harder and not in any way, shape, or form practicing what I preached in terms of self-assessment, of personal behaviors, and responses to stress.”
Explore this issue:March 2018
A “crisis moment” arrived, he said, when he was asked to deliver a prominent address on burnout at the American Academy of Otolaryngology Annual Meeting, in which he’d be making recommendations he wasn’t abiding by himself. The moment helped transform his life. He engaged in a mindfulness and meditation program, cut out quick-fix coping mechanisms, and began to practice yoga regularly. “I decided to live pretty strictly what I was preaching in my talks about burnout,” Dr. Johns said. He eventually lost 20 pounds and said, “I am a dramatically better person today.”
He said the field of medicine needs to re-embrace its principles of professionalism: an orientation toward public service, roots in a code of ethics, and a move away from a primarily profit-oriented stance. “I think we as a profession have focused so much on our own personal gains and our own personal income, we’ve lost, to a certain extent, our profession,” he said. “This is what I think we’ve got to recapture.”
Dr. Johns also said it’s important for burnout to be seen for what it is. “We talk about burnout almost like it’s a disease, and it’s not,” he said. “It can lead to a variety of diseases or dysfunctions or disorders. But burnout is a consequence of an adverse work environment, period.”
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Dana Thompson, MD, head of pediatric otolaryngology at Northwestern University in Chicago, said it took a long time to recognize burnout as a problem. “I just assumed that burnout was: This is how it is.” Her solution? “Deal with it,” she said.
Dr. Thompson eventually realized that there were a lot of elements in her background and career that lent themselves to feelings of burnout. She had grown up as a competitive figure skater, up at 4 a.m. to get to the rink for practice before school, with a perfectionism that was not always healthy. Later in life, on the job as an African-American woman, she was always in the minority, leading to a sense of isolation. “I had to deal with my own demons,” she said. “Am I good enough to be here? Does pediatric otolaryngology have a role in my organization?”