How burnout led me to discovering my why

How burnout led me to discovering my why

Dr Olivia Ong

In 2019, I was a physician working in public and private practice, stressed and overwhelmed, on the verge of burnout and in dire need of change.

A few years earlier in my late 30s I had ticked all the success boxes. I was a highly respected pain physician. I was happily married. My son was thriving and happy. I had my own house and had a great network of friends.

But, in reality, I was starting to feel emotionally and physically exhausted, stuck in my situation, and completely isolated and invisible in my suffering over time.

The combination of living with a spinal cord injury, motherhood, full-time work, and studying for fellowship exams exhausted me. I ignored the warning signs of burnout such as becoming overwhelmed, constantly worrying, stressing over small things and not sleeping well. I felt disconnected from myself and others around me. 

Yet I kept pushing through. I thought admitting to burnout would mean showing vulnerability and weakness. Until eventually, I was burned out.

I’m not a psychologist. What does any self-respecting academic do when they don’t understand something? I got a book on burnout! Not just one, but dozens! This may not surprise you, but I’m a classic overachiever. Unfortunately, I already knew the advice I found in those books. Setting boundaries, resting, I got it. I knew that. It didn’t work for me.

Burnout is not just an individual problem to be addressed by individuals, it’s caused by a multitude of factors including workplaces and organisations.

I have spoken to many doctors and they describe common experiences of burnout. Whether it’s about putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own, work-related conflict with a supervisor or colleague, or juggling exams, work and relationships and traumatic patient stories, leading to vicarious trauma. 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.

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. I also learnt how I could 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.

I’ve seen many of my medical colleagues burn out. I realised I could help my medical peers discover these heart-based tools for themselves so they can rediscover their self-worth and lead the heart-centred life they truly deserve. I want to help them to find their spark of joy and creativity outside medicine.

That’s why I’ve written my first book to help those in healthcare rejuvenate, regain and restore their well-being. We need more heart-centred doctors in medicine. My am is to use my experience to help doctors around the world lead the heart-centered life they deserve without burnout.

This is my driving force. This is my WHY.

Dr Olivia Ong, author of The Heart-Centeredness of Medicine, is a resilience leadership consultant, life and business coach for doctors, and established pain physician. She is a keynote speaker on physician burnout prevention and runs programs helping doctors transform their lives from burnout to brilliance. To find out more visit

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