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American Association for Physician Leadership
American Association for Physician Leadership

Physician, Heal Thyself: Nine Techniques to Ease Stress

by Jason Davis

January 1, 2018

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There is no short-term fix, but there are ways to help clinicians work their way through the increasingly complex world of health care

There is no short-term fix, but there are ways to help clinicians work their way through the increasingly complex world of health care.

Most physician leaders are happy with their decision to enter the medical profession, and they continue to practice in environments that provide them deep professional satisfaction.

Still, there’s more attention than ever being paid to physician well-being these days — specifically toward the factors that lead to professional fatigue. Contemporary approaches to fighting it include the combined efforts of individual physicians as well as their organizations.

As organizations measure their available resources and weigh effective methods for workforce wellness, including systems change paired with awareness-building and education for clinicians, there are many steps you can take on your own right now to build personal and professional resilience.

There is no short-term fix for burnout, but with the new year here — bringing a psychological impetus for new routines and better practices — here are nine things you, and other physician leaders, can do to find and embrace the concept of wellness.

Virtually any form of physical activity relieves stress and builds internal capacity for stress. Exercise increases your overall health and your sense of well-being, which puts more pep in your step every day. It also has the stress-relieving benefit of bumping up the production of endorphins (the so-called feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain), which can help improve your mood, your self-confidence and your sleep pattern.


Learning new skills is not only useful, but, according to the England-based National Health Service, there’s research showing it can improve mental well-being. Learning boosts self-confidence, helps establish a sense of hope and purpose, and helps individuals connect with others. For physicians, that can mean working on gaining new credentials (such as Certified Physician Executive ) or gaining specific skills necessary to be a more effective leader.


Support: Go to the AAPL website, check your account dashboard, and find fellow members near you.

Mindfulness: The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health discusses this topic with physicians in mind.

Health: The Federation of State Physician Health Programs is dedicated to improving the health of medical professionals.

Exercise: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center reports on how doctors can squeeze in some physical activity.

Vacation: The organization Take Back Your Time challenges the idea of overwork — and helps you get in the right frame of mind.


Positive vacations have a significant effect on your energy and stress levels. In a 2014 study published by Harvard Business Review, 94 percent of respondents had as much or more energy after coming back after a good trip. Taking time off from work — a low-stress, well-managed vacation, completely removed from work activities — can leave you happier and less stressed, allowing you to return “with more meaning in your life,” the study’s authors say.


Even a quick getaway can help change your mindset, if it’s meaningful. Mindfulness and emotional well-being are increasingly important, and holistic retreats can help promote mental acuity, inner calm and self-awareness. For example, the American Association for Physician Leadership’s recent “Beyond Burnout & Resilience” workshop helped empower, energize and inspire dozens of physician leaders toward effective industry change.


Physicians often are highly self-critical. Instead of stewing over issues, acknowledge your feelings and don’t beat yourself up. Something that can help is a “brag book,” a collection of notes on patient successes and thank-you letters from families. It can be a psychological boost to see these mementos and feel proud of your career and see the difference you make in others’ lives. It also can inspire other staff members about how well they work together.


Sharing knowledge with others has positive psychophysiological effects that restore natural healing and growth processes and improve stamina. As a physician leader, you have the unique opportunity to share your knowledge with colleagues to create positive change in health care — whether that’s writing a manuscript for the Physician Leadership Journal , mentoring a younger physician or just building deeper relationships with colleagues.


There’s mounting evidence meditation helps relieve the fatigue many physicians experience because of their demanding schedules and obligations. An increasing number of medical institutions and health systems recognize that mindful practice can enhance your well-being and ability to empathize with patients. Scheduling doesn’t have to be an overwhelming obstacle — even five to 10 minutes of mind-clearing solitude can be beneficial.


Many professional stresses are the result of broken workflow within an organization. It can be exhilarating to do something about those barriers and frustrations. (Lack of engagement is one symptom of professional burnout.) Taking the initiative to find solutions to the issues that affect the workplace can allow you to regain some of the control that physicians traditionally have held, and allows you to have candid conversations with other organizational leaders.


Sometimes, professional frustrations are beyond your control and cannot be fixed without a major change. It might be time to move from an informal leadership role into something more formal — or even finding a new organization. Talk to others who have made a similar move and ask how they did it. Also, consider professional organizations that specialize in supporting and developing physician leaders, including the career services offered by AAPL.

Jason Davis

Jason Davis is a Managing Editor at AAPL.

For over 45 years.

The American Association for Physician Leadership has helped physicians develop their leadership skills through education, career development, thought leadership and community building.

The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


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