The Current

'Leadership shapes culture': Addressing doctor burnout, depression must start at the top, doctors say

After hearing The Current's segment earlier this month about doctors and medical residents who suffer burnout and depression, we heard from doctors who wanted to add their voice to this "public health issue."

'I kept working because that's all I knew how to do,' says Dr. Catherine Pound

Dr. Caitlin Weston studies physician burnout and says in the last two years, she's lost two friends to suicide. (Felicity Blundell)

For a long time Dr. Catherine Pound thought she was the only doctor experiencing burnout and anxiety. 

Early in her career as a pediatrician, she says she struggled with anxiety until she could barely function. 

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. And yet, I kept working because that's all I knew how to do," Dr. Pound told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.
Dr. Catherine Pound has made it her mandate to de-stigmatize mental illness in the profession. (Submitted by Dr. Catherine Pound)

"I'll never forget that feeling of hopelessness where you just don't even know how you're going to make it through the next eight hours."

A recent Canadian Medical Association survey revealed a significant proportion of the country's doctors reported experiencing burnout and depression.

Following The Current's segment on the survey's findings, several doctors, including Dr. Pound, wrote in about their own struggles.

Dr. Shelly Dev, who works in Toronto, called it "a public health issue" and a "real crisis" in a letter to The Current.

When she was a new mother and a new practising doctor working in a trauma centre, Dr. Dev witnessed death frequently. But after her father died of cancer, she couldn't go on without help and started seeing a therapist. 

Part of the problem is not being prepared to deal with the impact of the profession, she told Chattopadhyay.

"I think the people who feel the most in this profession do the best and suffer the most because they feel very connected to what they do but they have never learned how to deal with their own internal suffering."

Dr. Shelly Dev calls the issue of physician burnout a 'real crisis' and a 'public health issue.' (Submitted by Dr. Shelly Dev)

'Feeling trapped'

Australia-based junior doctor Caitlin Weston, who has been studying strategies to address doctor burnout in North America and the U.K., says she lost two friends in the medical field to suicide. Both were 29.

"It's the shame and isolation that makes it so much worse and feeling trapped like this will never get better."

She says medical culture has been slow to change but it is evolving and pointed to examples of successful measures that have been implemented.

She spoke of a time-banking program at Standford University Hospital, which allows ER physicians to accumulate "credits" for tasks like sitting on a committee, mentoring or covering a colleague's shift at the last minute. They are then able to use the credits on supports like childcare or house cleaning.

"I found that this was a really elegant solution to a very complex problem in that it re-empowered the clinicians themselves to address the work-life and work-work conflicts," she said.

Weston says a cultural shift is "fundamental" and it starts at the top as "leadership shapes culture."

"Just that acknowledgement from administration, from leadership, that they value the wellbeing of their staff, in of itself, I think, is a big thing."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

Produced by Willow Smith.


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