Healthcare workers were burnt out long before COVID – one doctor’s journey to recovery

Healthcare workers were burnt out long before COVID – one doctor’s journey to recovery

Dr Olivia Ong

Burnout in the medical workforce was at epidemic proportions before the pandemic.

For many doctors, COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Being isolated physically from family and friends, and overwhelmed by the surge of sickness and death they face on a daily basis, means that depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary trauma are reaching levels that have never been seen before and they are more burned out than ever.

I understand this feeling of burnout because I have been there too. In 2019, I was a pain physician working in public and private practice, stressed and overwhelmed, on the verge of burnout and in dire need of change. I felt disconnected from myself, my family, friends, colleagues and patients. My relationship with my husband and son suffered. I was isolated, disconnected, helpless.

These were the same feelings I had when I had my spinal cord injury in 2008 after I was hit by a car moving at high speed. My doctors told me I was “in it for the long haul”, but I never gave up on my dream of walking again. Travelling to San Diego to participate in Project Walk at the Centre for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery in 2010, I regained my ability to walk after three agonising years.

I resumed my career and at this point I had ticked all the success boxes. I was happily married, my son was thriving and happy, I had my own house and a great network of friends. But in reality, I was emotionally and physically exhausted, and completely isolated and invisible in my suffering over time.

The combination of living with a spinal cord injury, raising a young family, full-time work, and studying for fellowship exams exhausted me. I ignored the warning signs of burnout such as becoming overwhelmed, constantly worrying and stressed over small things and not sleeping well. I felt disconnected from myself and others around me. Yet like many others, I kept pushing through. I thought admitting to burnout would mean showing vulnerability and weakness. Until eventually, I was totally burnt out.

Deep down I knew there had to be a way how I could build my career while growing my family and become the leader and mother I envisioned myself to be – all without the burnout. During the pandemic in 2020, I wanted to rediscover the passion in my work, restore my mental and emotional wellbeing, and reconnect with my family, my inner self, and my identity beyond the physician. I discovered self-compassion and other heart-based tools which helped me thrive at home and at work. Self-Compassion allowed me to have less stress and I became more productive as it helped me take ownership of my thoughts to gain a whole new perspective.

Not only was I not willing to live with fatigue and overwhelm, but I knew that if I could change, so could others. It’s now my mission to help my burned-out medical peers discover these tools for themselves so they can rediscover their self-worth and lead the heart-centred life they deserve. I want to help them to find their spark of joy and creativity outside medicine, particularly as they go through such a trying time during COVID.

Hitting rock bottom helped me discover my why. I’ve now written a book about my experiences, and run programs to help doctors transform their lives from burnout to brilliance. My mission is to help others utilise self-compassion and other heart-based tools so that they can improve their state of mind and wellbeing so that they can help themselves and their patients. This is my driving force. Seeing how self compassion has transformed my life, I know it can transform the lives of others too.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox