When flight attendants deliver safety instructions, they remind us of the need to put on our own oxygen masks first before we try to assist others.
As health-care professionals, our natural tendency is to focus on the well-being of others; that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We give our patients good advice regarding their physical and mental health, yet the environments we work in are not always conducive to our own well-being. The result can be burnout, which is associated with depression, which increases the risk for suicide. In fact, physicians have a higher suicide rate than the general population.
When I used up all my “vacation” time during my second year of residency dealing with the loss of my mother, I just accepted the reality that I would have no real vacation time that year. It was only the following year, when a colleague was in a similar situation, that I began to question the time-off policies of our training programs.
In my colleague’s case, her father had passed away suddenly in another country, and even though she was unable to travel to be with her family, she was understandably off work for a few days. When she was informed that her time off would be deducted from whatever vacation time she had for the year, she promptly decided to return to work. She concluded that she’d rather be at work than spend her “vacation” days mourning, even though it had been only a few days since she’d received the sad news.
After she discussed the situation with me, I realized that I’d spent all my vacation time the previous year dealing with the loss of my own mother. Now that I had the time to think about it, what I had accepted at the time in a matter-of-fact way didn’t seem quite right.
I understand that there are requirements that need to be met by training programs, but I’m not sure a policy that allows a few days of bereavement leave would have a significant impact on a resident’s training.
As healers, we need time and space for our own healing. Some changes require better self-care on our own parts, as individuals, while others require systemic changes. Hopefully, those in a position to advocate for and make changes where they’re needed will feel empowered to do so.