• Milena Murphy

Why we should be kind enough to allow ourselves the *occasional* day off

We are taught from day one of medical school to be kind. We are told to be kind to our patients, their relatives and all of our colleagues in allied healthcare professions. This kindness, arguably, makes for a better working relationship and greater job satisfaction. However, the notion of kindness should also extend to ourselves, as medical students. Our studies are stressful at times. This stress can take a huge toll on our bodies and minds, not to mention the people around us.

In this article for Wellbeing Week, I would like to make the case that we should all entitle ourselves to “me days” to help make our studies a little more bearable. I am not suggesting that you slack off and miss valuable learning experiences, I am merely encouraging you to check in with yourself from time to time and evaluate how close you are to the end of your tether. If you feel that you are exhausting yourself, spreading yourself too thinly and quite frankly losing touch with who you are as a person, it is time to take a little break. This can be a couple of hours, half a day, or even an entire weekend.

A lot of the time, people have a misconception that “burn out” is reserved for when you’ve actually graduated and when you’re working long shifts with proper responsibilities for real patients. Burnout amongst doctors is certainly an issue, with the most recent BMA study stating that “44% of doctors” are currently suffering from anxiety, depression and burnout. Unfortunately, medical students are also at risk. For those of you who don’t fully understand the meaning of burnout, it is defined as a concept with three key dimensions. Those are: “physical and psychological exhaustion”, “cynicism and disengagement” and “depersonalisation”. Of course these are not things that should be taken with us onto the wards as they don’t make for an environment conducive to good medical practice. Medical school is about learning, and to a certain extent simulating what our professional lives will look like. As a result, we should take this time to learn about our personal limits, to find our own coping strategies and to be truly in touch with ourselves and our feelings so that we can be more resilient when we eventually graduate. If you look at it this way, we almost owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and our future patients to take the occasional day off if we can see ourselves travelling down a route that may lead to burnout in the near future.

None of what you read in this article will be anything that you don’t already know, but it is surprisingly easy to get wholly consumed by that classical medical-student-guilt which manifests as a voice inside of your head telling you to be productive from the moment you wake up in the morning until the moment your head hits the pillow at night. Here is some advice I’ve gathered on my journey through medical school so far.

  1. Don’t lose touch with what is important to you as a person. Surround yourself with things that you enjoy, things that make you happy and things that help you relax. After a long day on placement, call on these things to decompress.

  2. “Doing medical school is enough to pass your finals. The extra things that you add to your plate should be things you genuinely enjoy”.

  3. Open up to people. You’d be surprised to find out that you’re not the only one feeling this way. Never be ashamed of how you’re feeling.

  4. “When you’re on a crashing plane and the masks drop down from the ceiling, you must put your own mask on first in order to help others apply theirs”.

  5. When it is time to take a day off and have a “me day”, fill this with things that calm you and re-centre you, rather than worrying about that massive pile of laundry you should really do.

  6. Remember the importance of nature and sunlight for your mind, body and soul. Try to get outside for a walk or some form of exercise you enjoy.

  7. Take the advice you’d give patients: do everything in moderation and treat your body and mind well at all times.

  8. Prioritise your sleep above all else. Sleep is non-negotiable, and will never fail to restore your cognitive, physical and emotional functioning.

  9. “You can do anything you put your mind to, but not everything all at once”.

  10. “Burn out exists because we have made rest a reward, as opposed to a right”.