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Learning to look after yourself

18 April 2018 - Dr Jan Orman

I made a big mistake last week.

It has been a very busy time for me this half year. I’ve had a lot to do and much of it has been quite challenging – pushing the boundaries of what I feel skilled enough to try. I’m aware that work is encroaching on the rest of life in a way that I promised I would not let it do ever again (yes, I’ve been here before). Last week, despite my better judgement, I agreed to be involved in yet another project.

I don’t think I’m Robinson Crusoe.

Many people talk to me about the same sort of problem in their own lives. They are people who are feeling overloaded, falling behind in their work or real-life activities (you should see the mess in my spare room!), who are experiencing stress and conflict in their personal lives or just feeling life is meaningless – all because they think they can’t say “no”. How do we go about achieving balance in our lives when we want to do the best that we can in everything we do - and the best that we can by everybody else? What a dilemma this is in the helping professions! Not only do we think we should be all things for all people – everybody else seems to think we should as well!

In a recent article highlighted on the ABC Health and Wellbeing blog “How to be a giving person without burning out” Sophie Scott talks about some studies that have looked at teachers who give selflessly to their students compared with those who give in a self protective way. It turns out that those selfless givers end up with classes who perform worse overall than those teachers who look after their own needs as well as those of their students.

Could this apply to us as health professionals? Of course it could! Take compassion fatigue for example.

What not to do…

When I was a young doctor, one of my colleagues finally got to the end of his tether. He was very sick with a respiratory illness but still at work (of course he was!). He walked out to the crowded waiting room of the emergency department ,where he’d been working for the previous 12 hours, sat exhausted in a chair and said loudly “If any of you bastards are sicker than I am you can stay, the rest of you piss off!”

Compassion Fatigue

OK, so most of us don’t actually act on our compassion fatigue, but how many of us continue to do the best job we can when we are doing too much? Have you ever dreaded going to work? Have you ever felt the person in front of you had no right to complain? Have you ever found yourself getting angry with someone who just didn’t seem capable of acting in their own interests (the obese person who can’t modify their diet, the depressed person who won’t exercise or the asthmatic who still smokes)? It could be that at that moment you are one of those people – someone who is incapable of looking after yourself.

On a plane the safety instructions insist that you put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. It makes sense, just as it makes sense to look after your own needs if you want to be of any use to others in the wider world. It doesn’t matter whether the people you are there to help are your students, your children or your patients you will do a better job if you are mentally and physically well.

What about me?

Today is officially my day off. I have decided that I will not go to work “to catch up on a few things” as I had planned to do. Instead I am writing a blog post and enjoying the peace and quiet of home. It’s too late to reverse the commitment I made last week but maybe now I will be able to remember to add my needs to the mix the next time someone asks me to do something for them.

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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