In the January 2020 issue of ENTtoday, I enthusiastically shared tips for making achievable new year’s resolutions, suggesting many daily actions we can take to achieve better physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. How inadequate my article seems now after an unprecedented pandemic year and into 2021!
Explore This IssueJanuary 2021
This year, ENTtoday physician editor Alexander Chiu, MD, asked me to write about optimism, which I was able to do only after much reflection and emotional catharsis of my own exhaustion, anger, anxiety, grief, and frustrations that have accumulated all year.
It’s difficult to be optimistic these days. Pre-pandemic, Medscape’s “National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2020” and “Otolaryngologist Lifestyle, Happiness, & Burnout Report 2020” highlighted the following disturbing statistics:
- Only 29% reported being happy at work.
- 24% were burned out, 3% were depressed, and 11% were both.
- 13% have had suicidal thoughts.
- 16% were seeking professional help for depression and/or burnout, and 14% had been under professional mental healthcare in the past.
- 50% were unlikely to participate in a workplace mental health program.
- Only 9% (always) and 37% (most of the time) reported spending enough time on their own personal health and wellness.
Surely these percentages have changed for the worse since the advent of COVID-19, increases in civil and social unrest, a progressively intense political divide, and the recent presidential election.
For me, I found that being “flexible” was no longer a choice. As surgeons, our training and career mandate that we are precise, systematic, laser focused, and decisive, and that we almost always need to plan and anticipate every minute of our daily lives. Yet this was a year with nothing but unpredictability. The most vulnerable and unwell versions of myself appeared whenever I tried to take control over countless situations at work for both clinic and OR workflow. The harder I tried to gain control, the more I thought I had “fixed” something, or the harder I tried to master new information (that changed week to week), the more frustrated I became. Emotional exhaustion ensued.
The best version of myself had surfaced early in the pandemic when I sent a daily positivity email to my entire division and colleagues every weekday for 38 days in a row during the mandatory stay-at-home order. But that version went away as soon as we began our “recovery phase” in mid-May. By September, it was clear I needed mental health support, and an overdue daily commitment to at least 20 minutes of both meditation and physical exercise. As I focused on breathing, self-awareness and self-control became possible again.