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Is it Burnout or just a yearning for another life?

16 April 2019 - Dr Jan Orman

Like most of us, I’m not very keen on the idea of aging - not when it applies to me or the people I love. Not aging the way most people think of it anyway.


Was Shakespeare right?


When we think of old age it may not be quite the “second innocence and mere oblivion” stage that comes to mind, but it could easily be “the pantalon” - shrunken both physically and mentally, the butt of jokes, a person to be avoided or whose company is only to be  sought out through a sense of obligation. Either way it’s not very pleasant.  How I cringe when I think of my year nine English class, and many other more mature audiences for that matter, laughing at those descriptions from Shakespeare’s As You Like It! But those descriptions are written for laughs and are only one side of the coin.


(You can find a wonderful version of the Seven Ages of Man from Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman here)


 The trouble with retirement is that it is often considered the doorway to the kind of old age we all fear, doesn’t sit well with me when people ask me if my recent career change, away from clinical work, is a prelude to retirement.


What are they thinking when they ask me about retirement?


“Get out old girl! I can see you are past it. Time to move over into your dotage and make room for someone else”? (I concede that this may be just the voice in my own head)


The other possibility is of course that they are thinking I’m no longer a “real doctor”, whatever work I’m doing, because I’m not seeing patients anymore.  With medical graduates increasingly involved in careers outside clinical practice I’ve learnt not to care about that second thought, but the first one is still bothers me a little.


Tired but not retiring


 I’m not retiring - I’m changing direction.


I admit I am feeling very tired. Clinical work is constant exposure to other people’s problems - many of which I’m no more capable of solving than they are. This persistent exposure to pain is very draining and I can’t do it 40 hours a week any more (I wonder if anybody should ever do it 40 hours a week, but that’s a different discussion). Sometimes I’m so weary I find it hard to be empathic.


Did I hear someone say “burnout”?


 Sure, it sounds like it doesn’t it? - fatigue, failing empathy and uncertainty about your own skills are the three primary characteristics of burnout as described by Maslach and her colleagues.

But I have decided that calling it burnout is not very helpful. Calling it depression is even less helpful. It’s either my fault or an incurable problem (or both) if I use those words.


If not burnout, then what?


In the same way, calling what I’m doing with my work life “retirement” is also not helpful, nor is it accurate. Apart from the fact that I work every day, just not clinically, it also suggests to me that I’m done for - no longer useful, needing to rest, tired and shagged out after a long squawk, pining for the fjords and ready to “push up daisies”! - with apologies to Monty Python.


(You can look at the Dead Parrot sketch again here. This is the version from 1969. There is no such thing as watching it too many times and just look at how young John Cleese is!)


 What I’m calling it is “time for a new life”. I’ve done my 40 years in clinical medicine (during which I often wondered if I should have been a lumberjack after all) and now I’m ready for something different. I can make good use of that 40 years of accumulated skill but what I need to do is not think about it as giving up - just as changing direction.


 Unlike the Norwegian Blue, I am not nailed to my perch and I hope you’re not either.


Further reading

Burnout: 35 years of research and practice Shaufeli Wilmar B., Leiter Michael P. and Maslach Christina. 2008

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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