Family physicians rarely have a spare moment these days. They typically practice at least 47 and see over 100 patients during an average 50-hour workweek.1 No wonder burnout is an issue.
If you’re arriving at the office on Monday morning as worn out as when you left on Friday evening, it may not mean you have poor time-management skills or lack life balance. It may simply mean you need a break.
David Younger, MD, a family physician practicing in Goodland, Kan., began scheduling periodic overnight trips out of town 10 years ago. Like many rural physicians who cover their own patients 24/7, he was getting burned out. “When you live in a small town like I do, you really can’t get away from the office,” he says. “Everyone knows you’re at home, and they don’t hesitate to call you there.” Now, every few months, he and his wife drive to a bed and breakfast about 30 minutes away from home. “Getting out of town allows me to forget about the ER and the troubles at the office and hospital and re-energizes me.” Younger plans his retreats over a weekend so they don’t interfere with his work schedule.
Vicki Bertka, MD, has been practicing for 20 years but discovered the benefits of taking retreats only a few years ago. In order to stay connected to her faith, she attends retreats sponsored by Catholic dioceses throughout Ohio. “Retreats allow me time to center myself,” she says.
One of the best retreats she’s attended happened entirely by accident. “I arrived at the retreat, started reading through the itinerary and said to the person next to me, ‘What does this mean? Silence begins?’ And she said, ‘Didn’t you know? This is a silent retreat.’ Well, I didn’t know,” Bertka says, “but it was a very moving experience.” Except for an hour of faith sharing on Saturday night, participants didn’t converse from Friday night until after Sunday mass.
“We don’t have the opportunity to quiet ourselves down to that extent during our busy lives,” she says. “To be quiet without the fear of being interrupted gave me the most incredible, full sensation. I was able to become very introspective as far as my faith and prayer life and came away feeling completely refreshed.”
Bertka is quick to point out that you can benefit from silence without having strong religious beliefs and without even attending a retreat. “You can create some quiet time at home,” she says. “Even an hour of silence is beneficial. You just have to commit to it and get your family members to agree to it as well.”
What are the long-term effects of taking retreats? While some of the restful effects do wear off eventually, Younger thinks his retreats improve his relationships with staff and patients. “A well-rested physician is less irritable and more willing to work hard than one who hasn’t had a break in years,” he says.
Bertka agrees. “I was very up when I came back from that silent retreat,” she says. “I was more patient with myself, my staff, my patients and my family. Going on a retreat gets my whole life back in perspective. It gives me a sense of inner peace. I know why I’m here.”
How do you find a retreat? Many organized retreats are advertised online (perform a search using the keywords “personal retreats”). You may also find information on retreats simply by talking to other physicians or professionals that you know. Keep in mind that a retreat doesn’t have to be specifically designed for physicians to be effective. You may get just as much out of an informal retreat of your own design. The key is to recognize when you need to take some time out and allow yourself to do it.
“It’s very important for physicians to really get away from work,” Younger says. “It gives us a better chance of not burning out on medicine and of remaining caring healers in this incredibly demanding business. And it’s a good reminder of what life should really be like.”