I wish healthcare hero sabbaticals were a thing.
This is going to sound terrible, but at the height of my recent bout with burnout, I remember feeling Jealous of a co-worker who had gotten COVID & got to stay home for a few weeks to quarantine.
Looking back now, I realize how absolutely awful I must have been feeling to actually wish I had contracted a dangerous disease, just so I could get away from work for a bit.
When speaking to other friends in healthcare- I was shocked to find out they too had similar thoughts. It became clear to me that perhaps I wasn't alone in feeling like I was at the end of my bandwidth rope.
When I was honest with myself, I came to admit that I was in fact burned out.
Truth is that deep down inside, I had been trying to figure out a way to recover from burnout without having to modify my work schedule & attempting to continue to work at the same pace. That had been my first instinct & the one that required the least amount of effort and sacrifice on my part.
It would have been nice if by some miracle or act of God I could have been cured of it without having to make any changes or sacrifices whatsoever on my part. Through that route, I would have kept making the same money & been able to avoid facing the root cause of my pattern of self-sacrifice. Also, I would have been able to bypass the terrible guilt that I would feel If I left & "abandoned" my team.
After several months, I realized that no amount of rest or #selfcare was helping me return to myself.
I was too far gone.
That is when I decided to stop working completely to allow myself the time and space to fully recover from burnout.
My recovery took me 7 months before the desire to go back to work returned.
During that time I sought the professional support I needed to deal with depression, anxiety, and unrelenting headaches, and GI problems.
This is how I was able to do it financially, & what I learned from my experience taking a sabbatical.
1. The Deeply Ingrained Pattern of Ignoring My Own Needs
It occurred to me that in our training to become medical professionals, we didn’t learn how to properly offset the toll our work takes on our 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 being.
Because of this, we may not necessarily be equipped with the proper tools to be able to recover fully from the physical, spiritual & mental demands of being a healthcare professional, or a student pursuing a healthcare degree.
Students working on their healthcare degrees can equally suffer from healthcare hangovers & burnout as well.
Overwork is normalized in the current Healthcare System. Our training emphasizes self-sacrifice & the system rewards overextending oneself beyond one's ability to cope & punishes the need for more rest than what the current work standards allow.
Moreover, the wellness of its workers is not worked into the business of healthcare.
All that seems to exist are support programs for healthcare professionals that are already burned out, suffering from compassion fatigue & moral injury.
In contrast, there are minimal adjustments being done to fix the system that caused it in the first place.
Programs such as EAP (Employee Assistance Program), corporate initiatives like pizza parties, healthcare hero banners & the like do not begin to scratch the surface in terms of what is truly needed for healthcare professionals who are already suffering from moral injury.
There does not seem to be any viable & overarching movement towards appropriate staffing ratios, humane work schedules, and the general viewing of healthcare professionals as humans first, capable and deserving of full lives outside of work just like everyone else.
Because of our conditioning & the way the system is set up, any attempt to reach for better work-life balance is often met with crippling guilt, managerial pushback & being considered a problematic employee.
I know I am not the only one to feel like this.
Just because there haven't been any in-depth studies that prove this, doesn't mean healthcare workers aren't aware this is what is happening & continue to actively suffer within the current standard healthcare employment model.
When I made the decision to stop working as an independent contractor & multi-specialty surgical PA during the pandemic, to my detriment & despite my burnout, I continued to work far past my ability to compensate for the toll it was taking on my health.
I did not want to add additional burden to my team.
The term trauma bond comes to mind.
This is when humans bond over collective traumatic experiences and it definitely describes the attachment I felt to my team & the enormous guilt I felt in taking the time to get better.
It was only by taking the time I needed to recover that I gained some clarity & I came to see that had we had enough staff, & weren't running a skeleton crew for as long as I can remember, perhaps we would have more freedom to step away from work when my health demanded it, instead of the normalizing health care professionals being routinely pushed far beyond our abilities to cope.
2. Temporarily Stepping Away from Healthcare Work is not the Norm, but it may be Beneficial
The second thing I learned, was that for me a hard stop, and walking away from work was required for me to get better.
This was a personal choice that may not be available to everyone, but it saved me.
I had been trying for months and months to try and recover from work while continuing to work to no avail.
The exhaustion became existential & everpresent in my life in all areas.
I slowly began to morph into a different person who was irritable, too tired to ever do anything that used to bring me joy in the past & then came the slow social withdrawal, anxiety, depression & hopelessness that came with other burnout signs.
So if you are finding it difficult to fully recover from burnout within the confines of your schedule in the current healthcare landscape, please consider that you may need more time that is currently available to get better.
Learn what signs to look for that signal moral injury secondary to working in healthcare.
3. An Eye-Opening Financial Awakening.
As my body began decompensating and my headaches, heartburn, depression, anxiety, and insomnia became something I could no longer cope with- It was almost like the choice to stop working was made for me against my will.
That is how strong the conditioning of self-sacrifice is.
My body was trying to bench me and it seemed like there was nothing I could do about it.
Losing my income was not something my husband and I had planned for financially.
My husband was extremely supportive, which I am incredibly grateful for. In fact, it was his idea I step away from work in the first place. I know it was really hard for him to see me, a normally energetic & charismatic busy body, lose my spark.
Although by all intent and purposes we both are considered to be good earners as my husband is in medical sales and I am a surgical PA.
Here's the thing though.
Once losing my income became something we had to contend with, taking a fine-toothed comb to our finances like never before became a necessity. In doing so, it exposed a myriad of blind spots that told me that just because we earned well did not mean we were being as smart as we could be with our money.
To be honest, upon taking a closer look at our financial picture, I was appalled at what I learned about our spending habits.
Now, I want you to consider that financially we were not doing anything differently than our friends, family & parents were doing. We were saving for retirement, paying off student loans & mortgage at a slightly faster pace than average & leased nice cars because we could afford to.
Or so we thought.
As far as spending habits we really don't spend much money on much "stuff" in the traditional sense. It was the mindlessness of our spending & our inattentiveness to maximizing our savings far past the traditional schools of thought that was eye-opening.
How do we spend over a grand on food delivery a month?!
Why the heck do we have so many recurring subscriptions we don't even use?!
We're paying $350 a month for Cable?!
Why the heck aren't we saving & investing more of our surplus income when we live way below our means?!
Stuff like that in aggregate.
Up until that point, we didn't need to pay such close attention to the flow of our money. Since we didn't really worry about making ends meet & were financially doing what was normal, we relied more on financial offense (earning more) rather than financial defense (spending less) as our financial strategy.
I quickly learned the value of intelligent financial defense as a very valuable strategy as well.
Going down to one income was a bit jarring and forced us to take a good look at our financial picture. After an in-depth financial assessment, we learned that just because we earned well, did not by any means, mean that we were being smart with our money.
And so we began playing aggressive financial defense & reducing costs that really moved the needle, I don't just mean stopping the fancy coffees at Starbucks, although we did that too.
We became super budgeters, eliminated car leases, sold big items, got rid of cable & kept our Netflix & bummed passwords for other streaming platforms from family & and more stuff like that.
We closed in on problem areas like our food delivery problem.
Because normally we worked crazy hours & were both so tired from work we developed a very bad food delivery habit that became almost a daily thing.
Sticking to a grocery budget & making food at home- really moved the needle for us in terms of reducing costs.
After 7 months & going down to 1 income- we were shocked to realize that we had actually saved more money than we had ever saved, padded our emergency fund, took a vacation, paid credit card debt, refinanced our mortgage to a lower rate over less time & even ended up buying two used cars cash.
Had I not taken that sabbatical that forced me to go on the financial defense none of this would have been possible.
This was eye-opening, & it made me make the connection between managing our money well and having more freedom to put up with less unfavorable scenarios at work.
These maneuvers have made it possible for me to take less call if I want to, as well as work less as an option too. Because of this, my baseline happiness has increased by a lot because I'm more at peace since I'm doing more of what I want more often than not instead of feeling stuck. This freedom is priceless & changed my entire relationship with work.
Student Loan Awakening
When I returned to work, we kept our financial strategy of defense over offense and continued to live on one income. This freed me up to tackle my student loans next.
Taking a fine-toothed comb to my personal student loan situation I once again became enlightened to multiple massive student loan mistakes I made in the past that I didn't even realize I was making, because of the gross normalization of taking on student loan debt & paying it at a rate that highly favors the lenders, not the borrowers.
At the time of writing this post, my income is mostly going towards saving to make a lump sum on my student loans once the payments start back up in January 2022.
If you want to learn more about my student loan journey and getting smarter with your student loan strategy check this out.
I can't wait to be off the hook from those dang loans & who knows maybe I'll set up a sinking fund to take an adult gap year off work or eventually become work optional- who knows.
4. Rewiring the Ingrained Pattern of Self Sacrifice
Returning to work, I was very worried about repeating my old patterns of overwork and ending up burned out again.
I mentioned this fear to my therapist and she suggested we take a look at the early warning signs that I missed when ending up burned out.
At first, it was a complete mystery to me. Then slowly with time and space & lots of massaging the issue I gained clarity about identifying patterns of self-sacrifice.
With the help of my therapist, I came to see that as a perfectionist & people pleaser I had no boundaries whatsoever regarding my availability. I never said no, even if it cost me peace.
This was difficult to come to terms with as my identity was tied to being a consummate caregiver from birth- being a big sister to my 4 siblings.
In keeping that in mind- I worked on setting boundaries then I tasked myself with trying to decipher the subtle signs that could warn me that I was overdoing & developed a healthcare hangover recovery plan.
With the help of my therapist, we came up with a list of things I need to have in play in order to recover, fully and wholly from my work in healthcare. I consult this list often when I have a foggy brain after a tough shift or two to remind myself of what I need to do to go back to my baseline.
In addition to abandoning my old pattern of behavior of overwork and over sacrifice I implemented startup and shut down rituals before and after work. They do not take long, but they really help me to demarcate my time better and helps me to intentionally get into work mode as well as getting out of work mode & really disconnecting from work.
In these post-pandemic times, we do not need to wait for scientific studies that prove that the healthcare workforce is undergoing a mental health crisis.
Although the system may be responsible for a lot of the conditioning & continuous reinforcement of a culture of self-sacrifice, we cannot necessarily expect humanity, & humane treatment from a non-human business model.
Within that model, the dial is set to maximize profits and our morally eroded workforce are unfortunate bystanders in this transaction.
Change is needed and an overhaul of the way we are working would be beneficial, but in my estimation, it will take a long time, & even longer since it currently does not appear to be a priority.
However, I am uncomfortable with the idea of deferring my wellbeing to a non-human business model & all the cogs in its wheels.
I prefer that we as healthcare professionals decide the what, how, and when of what will maximize our wellness so that we may live full lives outside of healthcare as well as reserve the right to continue to do meaningful work we love again by carving a space within the current healthcare climate to do so.
Financial aptitude is needed to create more freedom to craft our ideal work-life balance.
It is possible to hack your traditional healthcare job for maximum savings & debt repayment including student loans.
We can rewire our patterns of self-sacrifice to stop our good hearts and compassion for our patients from being weaponized against us in the traditional healthcare work model.
Overall my hope is that you use my example to help you better navigate being a healthcare professional in the current system to maximize your own wellbeing & happiness above all else.