Emotional toll make patients out of doctors

By Azera Parveen Rahman, IANS,

New Delhi : The white coat, those knowing eyes, that reassuring voice when in pain, a mere glimpse of a doctor puts us at ease. Little does one realise that their back-breaking schedule, odd working hours and “emotional labour” during patient care sometimes takes a toll on doctors’ health, pushing them to seek help themselves.

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This is probably why sometimes doctors, despite knowing it all, take to smoking and even get addicted to it and alcohol, which in turn leads to other health complications, experts say.

Sameer Malhotra, head of the psychiatry department at Max hospital, said that many a time he has had people from the medical fraternity sitting on his patient’s chair, seeking help to deal with their problems, which are often stress-related.

“I do have doctors coming to see me, seeking help to deal with problems like anxiety, psychosomatic problems and de-addiction (from nicotine or alcohol),” Malhotra told IANS.

Samir Parikh, director, Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, similarly said that doctors often come to him looking for advice on how to manage their stress.

“The medical profession has a high-stress quotient. Doctors have long, gruelling working hours, which is very taxing. Stress is more like an occupational part of a doctor’s job,” Parikh told IANS.

“Hence there are times when doctors, who are fellow colleagues, come to me looking for advice and suggestions on how to manage their stress,” he added.

According to Malhotra, emotional stress, more than physical burden, is what affects doctors.

“Doctors have to constantly give emotional support to their patients, especially in cases of terminal illnesses. You have to understand that doctors are, after all, human beings. And try as they may, they do get affected by their patients’ and the relatives’ emotional turmoil,” Malhotra said.

“It’s especially tough for young resident doctors and students because in addition to their course curriculum, they have to hone their patient handling skills,” he added.

Author and behavioural trainer at Human Impact Training and Consulting Private Limited, Lata Gwalani, agrees.

“Doctors have been encouraged to put up a facade of emotional calmness and stability in front of their patients. They are taught to continuously underplay emotions – both in acknowledging others’ emotions and in accepting their own. This invalidation of emotion creates a huge build-up of emotional baggage,” Gwalani said.

“Over time, this baggage becomes too unwieldy to carry around. Emotional labour takes its toll on us. While most working people are doing some amount of emotional labour, doctors are perhaps the best examples of extreme emotional labour. Breaking bad news is difficult,” she added.

Ziaur Rahman, a doctor, remembers one of his colleagues succumbing to liquor.

“Our profession is such that it is deeply satisfying, but at the same time stressful. If you cannot handle it well and know where to draw the line, it can cost you your health,” Rahman told IANS.

“I remember one of my colleagues – a very good doctor – getting addicted to alcohol over a period of time. Along with the addiction came a host of health problems and, sadly, it cost him his life. Having said that, most doctors do know how to juggle their professional and personal lives,” he added.

“I am a doctor, but I have to admit that it’s very difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle and follow my own advice that I give my patients,” Sashwati Banerjee, a young doctor, said. “The long working hours, the night shifts, the stress…it’s very easy to succumb to these with a few puffs of smoke or a peg or two of alcohol.”

Having said that, it’s not very difficult to deal with stress, counsellors say.

“The most important thing for the doctor is to be able to draw the line between empathy and sympathy. Empathise with your patient, try to understand the pain, but at the end of the day, you should tell yourself that you did the best you could,” Malhotra said.

“One should also take out some time for relaxation. Simple exercises and yoga can help. Hospitals should also ensure that doctors get some space, for instance, to eat their lunch on time, or spend time with their family,” he added.

Gwalani added: “Some amount of de-clinicing during the day will considerably help. The doctor can choose a time during the day to shut out the outside world and indulge in some meditative music. Doing some deep breathing, visualisations and positive affirmations can help rid negativity”.

“Finally, people should respect a doctor’s private time. Of course, in an emergency you will seek help. But other than that, one should understand that like others, they too need time for themselves and their personal life,” Malhotra said.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at [email protected])