The Counterintuitive Concept of Burnout Skills

“Burnout skills are the actions at which you excel, that people identify as your strong points but which drain you of motivation. They are unable to energise you and therefore deplete you without refueling you.”

                                                                                                                                                     Claire Burge

Physicians solve problems. We always look for ways to make bad situations better. We rarely say that we can’t help a patient at least in some fashion, even if we can’t cure them. More often than not, we treat patients within the confines of financial or administrative limitations we have no control over.

Physician burnout is a common topic these days. Doctors blame patients, insurance companies, healthcare administrators and the government for their job dissatisfaction.

When thinking about what might put me at risk, I have always thought of burnout as a consequence of external forces or immovable obstacles.

The other night I suddenly realized I have always had the wrong perspective on how burnout occurs. It doesn’t happen to us, we bring it on ourselves.

My wife and I have taken to reading daily reflections after dinner. One of our choices the other night was provocatively titled “Not Every Skill Is Profitable”. The subtitle was even more provocative: “In fact, some will just burn you out.” The writer referred to a South African blogger and businesswoman, Claire Burge, whose words in one instant changed my understanding of burnout:

“Burnout skills are the actions at which you excel, that people identify as your strong points but which drain you of motivation. They are unable to energise you and therefore deplete you without refueling you.”

Claire Burge was experiencing burnout and met with a career psychologist, Aine Mahony, who encouraged her to look at the difference between those skills that can drain you and those that can motivate and energize you. Burge writes:

My entire career to date has been made up of my burnout skills and I have continually pursued these areas with intensity because everyone has always told me to work within my strengths. Aine states that this is why I am where I am.”

I realize now that my strength as a tenacious problem-solver can be a burnout skill if I choose to take on problems that are ultimately unsolvable or go beyond my scope or authority as an employed primary care physician. When I can’t fix such problems, I feel frustrated and drained. My strengths as a diagnostician, communicator and motivator are my energizing skills. I need to use and cultivate them more in order not to risk burnout in my career.

Three months after her first meeting with Mahony, Burge felt alive and energized by her career and the new direction she was taking it. Her blog post ends:

“Tonight over barbecued hamburgers and grilled mushrooms I tell Calvin about my day. My last words end something like this: It didn’t really feel like work today. I was having so much fun.”

How many physicians today say that over dinner with their spouse?

8 Responses to “The Counterintuitive Concept of Burnout Skills”

  1. 1 claire June 8, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    This context is so relevant! Many doctors move in our friendship circles and I see burnout too often.

    Thank you for taking the time to take this broad concept and to niche it so well.

    I appreciate the feedback and the email.

    I am thankful that my experience is able to help others.

  2. 2 Jeff Gossett October 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    I’m not a doctor but work in a field where the demands are many and the visible results few. At 62, I find myself completely burned out with absolutely no motivation to continue working at what I’m considered a consumate expert. This information certainly resonates with me and may lead my life in a different direction. Thanks for sharing.

  3. 3 Doctor John April 28, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    This article resonates with many of my colleagues in emergency medicine as well as with me who feel burned out and have lost the passion for doing what we spent our lives to do. I do not fully agree that “we bring burnout on ourselves” but would agree that we rarely take steps to change the course of burnout.

    After almost 25 years in practice, EM has become nothing more than a “tracker board” driven my time metrics, greet times, greet to first order times, total length of stay, and the almighty important “patient satisfaction scores”. My personal patient satisfaction score is ~ 96% but do you think anyone shared that information with me….perhaps to say “good job doc and thanks for what you do”….NO….I had to go looking for my own results and it took the hospital ~ 1 week to actually produce my scores. When I served as a medical director of a single department and later a system chair overseeing 4 departments, I took every opportunity to recognize and share the success of my colleagues in the most public manner possible and likewise took responsibility for any of the department failures. Now that model seems inverted and many physicians see this as well.

    As I reflect on this article and my own career, I realize that I was already putting these concepts into practice. My idea was initially to “get away from” the toxicity and hubris of illegitimate and self serving hospital administrators and their metrics which seem to compromise care more than improve it…. but then after reading this article I appreciate that I am not running from something but moving into areas that are my “energizing skills”. These include my military service (to include a 3 month deployment last year…it’s hot in Africa in the summer but not as hot at the ED toxicity can be at times), working with retail health nurse practitioners, educational roles, independent peer review, and other areas where I can once again use my stronger skills/experiences and develop my own career path into different non-clinical roles. This is good and bad….as I remain dedicated to being at the bedside however the hospital based medicine environment today is full of risks…and those are not medical legal risk but risk of meeting your director one morning and being told that you are being “taken off the schedule” (aka fired) at the request of the “hospital” (aka CEO). In the past as a director, I had to do this and unfortunately in the last year I have seen 4 of my colleagues meet this fate.

    This article supports my redirection and I will certainly share this with other colleagues. ENERGIZING SKILLS….I like it!!!!

    • 4 acountrydoctorwrites April 29, 2016 at 12:08 am

      Thanks for writing.
      Claire Burge’s post blew me away when i first read it, and i keep coming back to the concept often in my thoughts and in my writing. At this pint in my career, 63 in a couple of months, i am fortunate to be working harder than ever before and having more rewarding experiences than i remember having twenty years ago. I’ve made room for my energizing skills!

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