You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling: Handling Optometrist Burnout

Jan 22, 2021
6 min read
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The last year has been worst than most for burnout. What do you do when fatigue sets in, and you realize you need to figure out a new approach to your optometry career?

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At the ten-year mark of being an optometrist, my sentiments toward my profession and satisfaction rate was at an all-time low. I had felt unresolved anxiety and had my struggles throughout my career, but this felt different; a terrible sense of lingering burnout was setting in. Was I doomed to wake up with this feeling towards my day permanently?

I had hit a wall in a relationship that I had been working most of my whole life toward, and it was with my career.

My first few months at optometry school, clinic, externships, residency, first job all had one thing in common: the wonderful sensation of enthrallment, excitement, and energy. I clung to the idea that this would be my purpose and could shape my happiness and identity around my career. I set my sights high and pushed myself to not just graze the surface, but delved into the depths of optometry with feverish dedication. Residency, fellowship, lecturing, disease-oriented patient care . . . I wanted to reach a zenith.

But a decade and several jobs later, the realities of everyday life as an optometrist began to weigh heavily on me. Between prior authorizations, audacious patients giving unsolicited social/political commentary, overbooked days with understaffed help, tackling student debt . . . the thrill was long gone, the sparkle in my eyes was replaced with my own set of floaters, and complacency, monotony, and existential crises set in.

I’ve diagnosed and helped countless patients that required serious medical attention, provided hope for those with visual impairments, and yet, the highlights of my career were overshadowed by the everyday lows and challenges.

How do you push back when that mental fatigue and burnout begins to settle in? What do you do when you realize that initial endorphin rush towards your career has fizzled out, and it seemingly becomes one spiritless day into the next?

This past year has brought a lot of time for self-reflection; taking stock of what we thought our lives would be like, and how limited control we do have or experiences and events. When I realized that the certainty and capacity for control in my life was a fallacy, it was a true struggle to cope; to regain any sense of self, I had to learn that my approach to my sense of personal and professional outlook needed work.

The first step of recognizing a problem is to be transparent with yourself as to why and how the burnout began. For me, it was recognizing we cannot control our surroundings, we can only control our response to them. My attitude towards how I had to approach everyday life was going to have to be different.

I had to build on personal and professional resilience.

Burnout caused a lot of anxiety for me; before even getting to the office I could feel the tension, dread, and apprehension start every morning. I had tried meditating, breathing exercises, all ways to quiet my mind, and none would help. Anxiety and complacency were robbing me of the chance of enjoying my career; I was not putting anything into the relationship but passively allowing the stress and strain to pile up. I have a very long career ahead of me, and it was time to renew and learn to face burnout rather than be a resigned participant within it.

By no means have I found a cure, but I have worked on finding peace of mind. It is not a quick fix when it comes to adjusting a reaction, an attitude, or a mindset; the right tools, however, can help invoke the necessary positive changes.

The biggest jumping-off point for me was to talk to someone who could point me to the tools I needed, as well as journaling before patient care. I used writing exercises that explored the why, how, and what I wanted to be different if I had control. What was my ideal setup, how many patients was I maximally comfortable seeing?

Seeking counseling or coaching is a normal part of the process to help challenge your mindset and change behavior patterns; particularly when it can impact your professional mindset. There are many different services from in-person, telemedicine, and phone options. There is still a stigma and sense that seeking help for psychological stress is a personal failing; it is not, it provides you the tools you need to reflect, embrace, and find a way to gain back professional satisfaction.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma was an eye-opening read about how our body and brain deal with trauma.To change my mindset and behavior, I decided to keep my own score on what I wanted to matter. For me, journaling before patient care was the biggest stress relief. Rather than walking into work already filled with anxiety and dread, I let it all out and could be calm, cool collected. Throughout patient care, I would also start writing down at least one word, (or a quick tally mark) after a good interaction, polite patient, or an “easier than you expected moment” in my day.

I spent time when I was not anxious reading articles about the future of eyecare in terms of megatrends, technology, growth projections, fashion options, treatments to help realize how much I still had left to learn and experience. I reached out to Sparks Therapeutics so that I had the kits needed to administer genetic testing in patients that have congenital hereditary retinal diseases. Current genetic treatments for certain Retinitis Pigmentosa patients who have undergone genetic therapy have regained sight in our lifetime! Additional studies and testing are being developed for other retina diseases. Knowing I am armed and ready to test and help a patient with kits in office to provide valuable information to the patient, their family, and to science made me feel like a part of something new and helpful again.

Recognizing that I wasn’t trapped, but a creature of comfort and schedule caused me to stick it out in familiarity. Another aspect of resilience is to remember what you do have control over. The greatest aspect of our career is there are so many opportunities out there if you aren’t in the right setting. Seeking out what type of practice may work best for you is a way to be an active participant in the quest to reduce burnout. Remembering that I was in control of making decisions about where I chose to spend my profession helped me feel more confident before walking into work daily.

Digging your way out of burnout isn’t easy

It is terrifyingly hard work but there are tools and strategies, and ebbs and flows towards recovery, but it’s made my outlook on my profession, career goals, and attitude one of hope and resilience. This piece of mind was priceless.

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About Sara Shkalim Shissias, OD FAAO

Dr. Sara Shkalim Shissias grew up in Brooklyn, New York and graduated from SUNY Binghamton University, with a Bachelors of Science in Cellular and Molecular Biology. After completing her degree, she entered the Pennsylvania College of Optometry and received her …

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