Physician Mental Health: The Role of Self-Compassion and Detachment

Physician burnout
Physician burnout
Prioritization of patients’ well-being can lead physicians to neglect their own well-being, including their mental health.

Working daily in the trenches of the healthcare industry, physicians are required to show compassion and engage emotionally with patients during the delivery of care. At the same time, the expression of emotions can be perceived as unprofessional. This has led many physicians to suppress their feelings to the detriment of their own mental health and well-being.1

What is Self-Compassion?

According to occupational health psychologist Kevin Teoh, of the University of London, “Self-compassion is about recognizing that you deserve, and need, to put yourself first, because if you don’t look after yourself then you won’t be able to look after others.” It can be difficult for physicians to cultivate self-compassion in an environment that Dr Teoh noted “typically requires individuals to be hardy and resilient.”

Indeed, in the medical environment, as expected, the patient’s well-being is given priority. This can lead to the neglect of physician well-being, particularly the impact that medical work has on physicians’ mental health. “In the medical environment, the focus is typically on being objective, correct, and scientific, which leaves little room for emotions and reflection,” Dr Teoh added.

Despite showing compassion in their work, many physicians do not experience self-compassion — a tool that could help doctors deal with the stresses of work and improve their emotional well-being.

How Can Physicians Develop Self-Compassion?

According to Dr Teoh, “Fundamentally, it’s the adage that you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can put it on others.” So, what might an oxygen mask look like for physicians? “It can be anything from going out to watch a movie or eat a nice meal, to even giving yourself some extra hours sleep,” said Dr Teoh.

Mindfulness is growing in popularity as a way of promoting self-compassion among physicians. “This is all about being aware and in tune with yourself, learning to listen to your body and your mind so you know what you need and can give that to yourself,” Dr Teoh added.

In one study evaluating the effectiveness of a mindfulness training course for primary care physicians using the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, significant improvements were reported in stress resilience, self-compassion, and self-reflection.2 After training, participants showed greater awareness of their feelings and emotions and were better able to handle stressful situations at work. This was after undergoing weekly group training sessions for 8 weeks, which included formal exercises such as yoga and meditation, and informal exercises such as focusing on daily tasks.

Training programs on emotional resilience and Acceptance Commitment Therapy can also cultivate self-compassion. Acceptance Commitment Therapy is a psychological intervention that uses mindfulness strategies to help individuals accept their thoughts, emotions, and situation. It teaches us to be kind to ourselves and to recognize, accept, and address our own needs.3

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag