Can Mindfulness Training Help Ease Clinician Burnout?
By Christine Mahoney, MA, staff writer and project manager at Group Health Research Institute
“As a primary care provider, I used to feel such intense stress and worry. It was hard to shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough for my patients, that I might be missing something, that I didn’t have time to meet all their needs. It was overwhelming at times.”
These sentiments, expressed by Elizabeth Lin, MD, MPH—a family medicine physician, researcher, and mother—are all too familiar for clinicians who work in primary care, many of whom are battling burnout. A recent study of 6,880 physicians conducted by the American Medical Association (AMA) and Mayo Clinic reported a burnout rate of 63 percent for clinicians in family medicine. The AMA chose burnout as its top physician issue in 2015. Clinicians who are burnt out report feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (treating patients as objects), and having a low sense of accomplishment in their work.
But things changed for Dr. Lin when she discovered mindfulness as a strategy for easing stress and worry. “By becoming more mindful, I found that I could be much more present in the moment with my patients, instead of being overtaken with worry about time,” says Dr. Lin. “It transformed my clinical interactions.”
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an evidence-based approach that can help health care professionals deal with work stress and burnout. Mindfulness finds its power in simplicity. It begins with being present in the moment and paying attention with curiosity to what you are feeling and thinking. Practicing mindfulness allows you to become aware in a non-judgmental way of your breath, body sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Mindfulness is enhanced through a variety of meditation formats such as walking, sitting, and stretching.
More than 36 years ago, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, saw the benefits of mindfulness and developed an eight-week program in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Since that time, MBSR has been shown to reduce stress and chronic pain, improve mood, overcome sleep problems, decrease anxiety, and enhance resilience, joy, and compassion.
Making the work more manageable and rewarding
It was these evidence-based benefits that motivated Dr. Lin to study MBSR in her research on treating depression in primary care. “What began as an academic interest became a daily practice that helped me live with the demands of being a physician, mother, and researcher,” she explains.
Dr. Lin has learned directly from Dr. Kabat-Zinn and has been teaching MBSR in the Seattle area for the past five years. Over the last six months, several primary care providers have taken her MBSR class at the Center for Child and Family Well Being at the University of Washington.
“What I hear most often when providers take my class is, ‘This has eased some anxiety and pressure in our jobs,’” says Dr. Lin. “They feel that mindfulness has made their day more manageable—not only in caring for patients, but their interactions with team members are smoother, as well.”
The best part of mindfulness for Dr. Lin is her how it strengthens her relationship with her patients.
“When I am able to be truly present with my patients, there is a stronger connection between us,” she says. “It is palpable. Somehow, I am able to be more open to whatever they bring forth. It has made my encounters throughout the day more rewarding and has added tremendously to my professional gratification.”
- For a list of tell-tale signs of burnout, see How to beat burnout: 7 signs physicians should know from AMA Wire.
- Check out MBSR classes offered in the Puget Sound region by the Center for Child and Family Well-Being and the Cascadia Mindfulness Institute.
- Learn mindfulness while earning CME credit! Check out “Cruise Your Inner Passage: The Art of Physician Renewal & Resiliency,” which will take place August 7-14, 2016.
- Dr. Lin is also available to answer questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Lin is a family medicine physician at Group Health, an adjunct researcher at Group Health Research Institute, and a clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. As a physician researcher, she is well-known for scientific studies on improving mental and behavioral health for patients in general medical settings. Dr. Lin has trained with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, where she received her certification in the teaching of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). She also trained with Drs. Chris Germer and Kristen Neff in order to become a teacher in Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). She has had a daily meditation practice for the past 25 years, and has taught MBSR for the last five years and MSC for the last year.