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Meaning and Purpose: Burnout and Resilience

Like many of you, my work life has changed significantly over the years. These transitions have reinforced my conviction that a strong sense of meaning and purpose are integral to a sustainable career in medicine. 

Take a moment to consider your current feeling of meaning and purpose at work. Where would you fall on an informal scale of 1 -10, with 10 being a high sense of meaning and purpose on most days?

 If you fall in the upper range, say 7-10, that is a tremendous accomplishment and a powerful buffer against burnout.  What are those things that are bringing you meaning and joy, providing you energy to meet the challenges of the day? Write them down. These are your guideposts.

If you are on the lower end of the scale, say less than 5, when was the last time you did have a strong sense of meaning and purpose at work? What work were you were doing?  Which specific elements deeply resonated with you then? What fueled your sense of purpose? 

Write it down- these are your bread crumbs. 

When you think about that prior sense of purpose and direction, what is different now?  Elements that may have changed include the actual job you were performing, and also the setting, the people, your support system, technology, time constraints, call schedule, sleep schedule and so on. 

Once you have identified some of the differences between then and now, write them down. These are your clues: potential obstacles, speed bumps, closed doors blocking your way to regaining meaning and purpose in your work life. 

The next important question to ask when considering your perceived obstacles is this, which elements of the situation are actually in your control and which are not? 

Research shows that a strong sense of ‘locus of control’, i.e., an inner ‘can-do’ perspective, is a recognized trait of highly resilient people. (1) It is not that these people don’t recognize the obstacle, it is that they simultaneously recognize it, maintain an attitude of realistic optimism, and begin to problem solve without fear of failure.

One of things I’ve observed when talking with some colleagues about burnout is a profound sense of loss of control, a feeling that medicine has changed for the worse and there is little they can do about it. This concerns me because I have seen many colleagues make deep and significant shifts in their outlook, turn events in their favor, seek out new opportunities, connect with broader networks and open doors to solutions not previously considered. 

If you need to refuel your sense of meaning in medicine, it may be worthwhile examining an area where you feel stymied, stuck, or stagnant. Take some time to consider these questions:

  • Can you clearly bring to mind a time you felt a strong sense of meaning and purpose at work?
  • Which elements resonated with you then?
  • If you’ve lost your sense of purpose, what is different now?
  • Does the change involve elements that are, in fact, in your control? 
  • If so, focus on one small area where you can realistically make a change. 
  • Then make it. 

Each time you follow the breadcrumbs and act, whether it’s a step towards physical self-care or in seeking out a new job opportunity, you enhance your inner locus of control, refining a perspective that will help you reengage with the powerful sense of purpose that drew you to medicine in the first place, providing welcome relief from feeling burned out, off course, and out of control. 

  1. Stress in America: Paying with Our Health. American Psychological Association, 2015
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