The Medical Treadmill

burn out medical treadmill medicine Dec 19, 2020
Woman running on a treadmill.
Burnout for me was essentially the brakes being slammed on in my life. I suffered a series of debilitating panic attacks (which I had never in my life experienced before) and just couldn't even get out my front door. Thinking back now, I can still remember the suffocating feelings of fear and overwhelm. There is almost something comforting to knowing those feelings now. I remember them so well that I know I will never let myself get back to that point again. 
I actually wrote my first blog piece "So I've burnt out" just a few short weeks after I stopped working. Little did I know it then, but there was an immense journey ahead of me. A journey that in some ways I think I'll always be on. This path of life that we all walk, I now walk more intentionally. No longer swept just onto the 'treadmill'.

​Some people are fortunate to have the self awareness to have always been on this intentional path. Yet for many of us, this path is in fact a treadmill. A moving conveyer belt on which we feel sometimes passively shifted along. The 'Medical Treadmill' has such inertia from school, to medical school, to internship, residency, unaccredited positions, being a junior reg, senior registrar, fellowship and eventually consultant. Don't get me wrong, there are huge life decisions to be made in that time. 
"Which college do I want to join?"
"Will I have any say into where I go?"
"When will I have time to have a family?"
Ultimately however, this process does tend to move along in a fairly linear pattern. Unless we are forced to or choose to step off.
What do we say to our colleagues who express a desire to 'step off' the treadmill at any point? Whether for a short break or even forever?

I experienced a lot of well intentioned encouragement not to do that.
That I would have to work too hard to "get back". Or that I would "miss opportunities". That it would be a "waste of my skills".

The dialogue here is really important I think.
As it turned out, I ended up needing to 'step off' for a while anyway. Perhaps I could have done this in a more intentional way sooner? Perhaps not. 

For me personally, I am immensely grateful for the journey I have been on as a result of the last couple of years and my 'burning out'. That doorway I felt myself standing in all that time ago was in fact this doorway into working to support the wellness of the healthcare workforce. Healing the healers. Caring for the carers.

I am excited and hopeful for the future. 

If you are feeling swept up on the medical treadmill, passively shuttled through your professional life towards some seemingly far off goal, I'd encourage you to try and familiarise yourself with the concepts of mindfulness.
Of presence.
Of perception.
Of non-attachment. 
Of self compassion.
Self awareness comes as we take our consciousness inwards to become more familiar with our own internal environment rather than only focussing on those things outside of ourselves and our control. 

Sometimes it involves some time "off the treadmill" for self reflection. And that is OK. 
Sometimes it involves staying "on the treadmill" but building a support structure around you so that you can lean on that and just lift your feet up every now and again. 
Sometimes it involves the speed and incline being turned up so far that eventually you end up flying off the end of the treadmill, unable to keep up anymore (like I did...). Look, it's not ideal- but that too is manageable.

The most important thing to realise is that ultimately, you control the treadmill.
​Even at the times when you feel like you don't, you always have the choice to step off for a while. 

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