“Burnout” is a term that has wriggled its way into the common vernacular with increasing frequency since COVID-19 first hit us. However, the concept of “burning out” – that chronic syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced professional effectiveness1,2 – is not new.
The Impact of Burnout
Thanks to the pandemic, the topic of burnout amongst healthcare workers has been pushed to the fore. We know that long hours, chronic understaffing, and stressed, demanding patients can contribute to a feeling of overwhelm among practitioners. The outcome of this has benefits for neither the practitioners themselves nor the patients they care for.2
Burnout in optometry and other areas of healthcare is closely related to feelings that you are unable to provide the level of care that you desire.2 However, going through burnout also can cause you to feel apathy and a lack of compassion towards your patients, which results in a deterioration in professional efficiency. One study evaluating the consequences of burnout amongst nurses found that patient quality of care and satisfaction suffered, as did general safety standards in the workplace.3 Although this systematic review focused on a cohort of nursing professionals, its results can sensibly be extrapolated to other healthcare practices, such as optometry.
Burnout in optometry negatively affects the individual clinician or their patients and the entire practice. Some practitioners experiencing prolonged or severe burnout can look to retire early, change careers, or reduce their working hours.2 Though optometry’s workforce is generally seen as robust enough to fill these vacant positions, patients are known to become loyal to specific clinicians rather than the practice itself. This means that having an optometrist who has moved on from the practice, whether through a career change or retirement, can result in patients also moving on from the practice to find care elsewhere.
Extinguishing the fire before burnout occurs
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Recovering from burnout can take a long time and sometimes may require drastic action to overcome, such as the aforementioned early retirement option. Therefore, the better solution would be to avoid experiencing burnout in the first place. This requires careful consideration and proactive steps. If, as the optometrist, you’re not in a position to make significant changes in your workplace, a heart-to-heart conversation with your manager or practice owner can help to implement strategies to make the clinic a healthier environment for everyone.
Here are some thoughts to consider when combating burnout in optometry.
1. Learn how to recognise that you’re approaching burnout.
We don’t want our patients to get to the point where every single meibomian gland has shrivelled and atrophied after ignoring dry eye symptoms and meibomian gland dysfunction for years. Similarly, identifying the smoke signals of impending burnout can help you diagnose and manage it early. Some signs can include:1,4
- Overreacting to minor errors, such as wrong refraction
- Increased irritability and impatience towards colleagues and patients
- Feeling undervalued or unappreciated
- Feeling constantly exhausted
- A lack of satisfaction, even if you know you clinically performed well
2. Work towards reducing the stigma of burnout or “just needing a break” from patients and the workplace.
Consider what proactive strategies you can implement in your clinic that promote a culture of kindness, respect, and compassion among your colleagues. This could very well start with you demonstrating these qualities. Work towards removing the stigma of mental ill health – this doesn’t necessarily mean major depressive disorder or bipolar episodes – being mentally and emotionally depleted and burning out is also a form of poor mental health. If you’re in a position of authority in your practice, consider offering “mental health leave” or “burnout leave”. Encourage your colleagues or employees to seek support for their mental health, whether offering your listening ear after a busy day of difficult patients or directing them towards mental healthcare services, such as Beyond Blue.
3. Find the right work-life balance for you.
In certain societies and certain generations, there is a lot of emphasis on work. When we meet someone new, one of our first questions is what they do for a living. However, your work does not define your identity nor your value. Sure, you can find satisfaction through your work as a clinician, but no one should be elevating their job as their sole reason for being.
Be sure to make time for hobbies and leisure activities outside of work. If you can find a way to incorporate an enjoyable activity into your practice, even better. If avoiding burnout means not working a 40-hour week and this is a financially viable option for you, then there’s no reason you need to be working 40 hours per week. If you know that life gets busy and time can get away from you, you may wish to pre-emptively schedule in a break every so often, such as a long weekend every quarter.
4. Formulate a way to leave work at work.
Some people are better at switching off after a day in the clinic. In contrast, others continue to ruminate over their workday into the evening. Think about an activity you can engage in most days, if not every day, after your hours in the practice are over. This could be like doing a few laps at the pool, going for a walk, or pottering around the garden. Some find cooking to be therapeutic or even just spending some time in play with their children. Whatever ideas you come up with, make them one that has nothing to do with work or optometry and something that you find relaxing.
5. Look for ways to reignite (or keep ignited) your original passion for optometry.
There must have been a reason why you landed in optometry in the first place. Salary and prestige aside, there is meaning and value in the work you do. After all, over three-quarters of Australia’s consider vision as their most important sense,5 so you play an essential role in society as a primary eye care provider.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to delve even deeper into optometry when optometry practice is responsible for your burnout, developing an interest in a specialised area can help to reignite your interest in the profession. Whether this is paediatrics, specialised contact lens fittings, or aged care visits, changing it up and expanding your scope of practice can do wonders in helping your passion to resurface.
Going through burnout as an optometrist is of no advantage to you as a clinician, your patients, or your practice. By considering how you can take proactive steps to maintain a healthy work-life balance and positive mental health, it is possible to avoid burnout altogether.
- Optometry Australia. R U OK? An optometrist’s view on dealing with burnout. https://www.optometry.org.au/. 2022. Available at: https://www.optometry.org.au/general_news/r-u-ok-an-optometrists-view-on-dealing-with-burnout/. (Accessed February 2023).
- News GP. A burnt out workforce impacts patient care. https://www1.racgp.org.au/. 2022. Available at: https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/professional/a-burnt-out-workforce-impacts-patient-care. (Accessed February 2023).
- Jun J, Ojemeni M, Kalamani R, Tong J, Crecelius M. Relationship between nurse burnout, patient and organisational outcomes: Systematic review. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2021;119:103933.
- Eyes on Eyecare. How to Prevent Optometry Burnout. https://eyesoneyecare.com/. 2017. Available at: https://eyesoneyecare.com/resources/optometry-burnout/. (Accessed February 2023).
- Optometry Australia. The 2020 Vision Index. 2020. Available at: https://www.optometry.org.au/wp-content/uploads/GVFL/Vision_Index/2020-Vision-Index-Report-FINAL.pdf.