Are You a Pachyderm Heading for Burnout?

Aug 23, 2021 | Burnout, Dealing with COVID-19, Thriving

If elephants are chained to a stake in the ground when young, they will not attempt to dislodge it when older. Their long-held belief that they are captive remains, even when their strength makes freedom possible. It’s their mindset that holds them in place, not their circumstances.

Do any of these beliefs sound familiar?

  • I need to be accessible at all times
  • No one else can do it
  • Accessing help is weak
  • There is no saying no
  • Self-care is frivolous—or maybe even selfish

There are benefits to adopting beliefs that we take at face value, that we no longer question. Decision-making is less complex when we have an automatic playbook.  

At the same time, if you follow internalized dictates without occasional questioning, it can lead you to make tradeoffs without realizing it, choose without seeing all your choices, and live by beliefs that no longer serve you. Just like the pachyderms.

As clinicians, we are conditioned to be really stellar at self-sacrifice, and we have developed ways to push through stress, long hours, exhaustion, and physical discomfort and keep going.

This playbook has worked for many—that is, if you disregard the epidemic levels of burnout pre-pandemic among physicians, nurses, advance practice providers, pharmacists, and other health care professionals.

With the pandemic, and the latest COVID-19 surge, many clinicians are finding pushing harder isn’t working. The current situation, with more to do and a staffing shortage, is a pressure cooker on overdrive.

And, like the adult elephant who doesn’t realize it has the freedom to pull out the stake, clinicians who are caught up in the demands of the day tend to put their heads down and keep doing what they’ve always done. It is often easier in the short term to continue living by outdated beliefs than to question them and course correct.

The alternative? Re-evaluate the beliefs that you’re holding. Are they guiding you to places you want to be? Are they allowing you to recharge, so you can be your best self at work and at home? Or are they propelling you toward exhaustion, burnout, or worse?

Will you continue to try to push through, see self-care as selfish, and sacrifice your wellbeing? Or will you allow the pandemic to be a call to action? Are you ready to question your beliefs and create a work life that’s sustainable and aligns with what really matters to you? Are you ready to step outside your comfort zone and try something different?

Begin to question your unquestioned beliefs and you’ll see options previously invisible to you. There lies freedom, for you and the pachyderm.

If you’d like some help seeing what’s currently invisible, let’s talk!

Photo credit: Hu Chen on Unsplash


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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