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Combating Burnout One Bite at a Time

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I can't speak on behalf of everyone in my specialty, but I believe there is a good percentage of radiologists who work nonstop from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they leave — working through lunch hours and not taking breaks. 

I experience days that are so busy that I forget to take a bathroom break, or hydrate enough to need a bathroom break. I bring with me a 64-ounce jug of water to remind myself to hydrate every day. And on more than one occasion, I leave work with it hardly being touched. I know colleagues who dictate studies during their lunch break while holding sandwiches and taking bites between the pauses because they are so busy.

Fortunately, not all days are like this, but those days certainly push me further along the burnout continuum. Lawmakers recognize how vital a work break is for employee health and safety. And many states mandate periodic breaks for workers, including dedicated lunch breaks. So, as physicians, why do we neglect our own health and safety and put ourselves in harm’s way?

My Sacred Lunch

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of food. Slogging through the morning only becomes bearable when I start my lunchtime countdown, anticipating when I get to eat my lunch. And, in my opinion, one of the worst things that can happen is lunch being interrupted by a phone call or person wanting to discuss a case. 

On more than one occasion, I sit down to eat at the same time a colleague enters to review a complicated case. Fifteen minutes later, my food is cold and unappetizing. I have had instances when I am in the middle of chewing, and someone comes in to go over a case. I find it difficult to eat and discuss at the same time. So, I would push my food to the side and watch it go cold.

These events impact my Burnout Factor Units (BFUs.) I am not looking to recreate a fine dining experience in my office or even require a full lunch hour to eat. I typically heat up a frozen entree and scarf it down in under 15 minutes. But, those 15 minutes often coincide with other clinicians who have wrapped up their morning schedules and have some free time before they have lunch themselves.

Setting Boundaries

Recently, I have recognized that I need to create protected time and space for myself — time that is legally afforded to every employee. If I don’t, I am only harming myself, adding to my own burnout, and limiting my own productivity.

I have decided to implement my own policy for personal time. It begins when I remove my frozen entree from my office fridge and put it into the microwave. I lock my office door and ignore phone calls during this time.

I might read or finish a case while my food is heating up. But, that is the only radiology thing I do until the last morsel of food has entered my alimentary tract. As soon as I am done eating, I unlock the door, and my phone is once again open for business.

Interestingly, my new policy saved me from a lunch interruption on the day I wrote this article. I heard a knock on my door with someone attempting to open it. I later found out that it was a mammography tech. She said, “I knew it was your lunch hour and didn’t really want to interrupt you, but I had a question.”

She ended up dealing with the issue without my input.

Health Takes Priority

There is no one better to look after your well-being than yourself.

You may think you are doing yourself a favor by always having an open door policy. However, I can assure you that unless you set boundaries, like the one I recently implemented, it can lead to your detriment.

Your priority should be preserving your physical and mental health.

If you’re not drinking the appropriate amount of fluids or you’re skipping bathroom breaks, you will slowly start to stress your internal organs, starting with your kidneys. Not only will you experience mental burnout, but you may also experience physical burnout as well.

I have learned that it is necessary for me to have a "closed-door policy" for some defined time in my workday. This allows me to function at a high level, not only for the rest of the day but for the rest of my career.

What are you doing to prioritize your health?

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