Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine
Florida Atlantic University
777 Glades Road
Boca Raton, FL 33431
The proverb, “physician heal thyself,” is probably more relevant today than it was in biblical times with the 24/7 culture of modern health care and medical education. It’s no wonder that physicians have an especially hard time “unplugging” from technology and separating work life from home life. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
To help reduce stress and burnout and enhance the quality of time spent after hours with family, friends and even pets, Phillip Boiselle, M.D., dean of Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine, challenged faculty and staff to consider a voluntary, weeklong exercise of moderation in sending after hour emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. This exercise was part of a focus on the importance of the sentiment, “Be Here Now,” and is one of several mindfulness programs the Schmidt College of Medicine has implemented to reinforce the desired culture for the college.
The after-hours email challenge, of course, was limited to elective, non-urgent communications and did not apply to situations where there was a potential concern for the security and safety of faculty, staff, students, patients, facilities or protected health information.
During the challenge, participating faculty and staff were encouraged to wear “Be Here Now” email challenge stickers and to share the impact of their participation on the college’s social media sites. Even night owls could participate by drafting their emails at night and scheduling them for delivery after 6 am the next morning. Faculty and staff eagerly accepted the challenge, posting selfies and inspirational messages on social media. Importantly, there were no complications or complaints of communication delays internally or externally during this exercise.
The email challenge is one of several ways in which the college is addressing the importance of preventing exhaustion, stress, and burnout. Other related efforts include the college’s HealthFirst wellness initiative and a college-wide culture shaping initiative that promotes teamwork and work-life balance.
Physicians in general have burnout rates that are twice the rate of those working in other occupations. Unlike stress, burnout is characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, and feelings of ineffectiveness, with the added dimensions of frustration or cynicism, resulting in disengagement, demotivation, and reduced workplace efficacy. Burnout is more gradual, progressive, and insidious than stress, making it more likely to go undetected until further along its continuum. It is also is associated with an increased risk for physical illness. The 24/7 culture of the modern workplace can exacerbate feelings of exhaustion and burnout.
A research study reported in the New York Times showed that people who respond to non-urgent work communication after 9 p.m. may experience worse quality of sleep and are less engaged in their work the next day. Yet, it’s almost impossible to avoid being barraged by emails. A 2018 study by the Radicati Group (a technology market research group), reports that there were more than 3.8 billion email users before the start of 2019. Last year, the average officer worker received about 90 emails a day and sent approximately 40 business emails daily. To put this into context, a company with 1,000 employees sends about 40,000 business emails in just one day!
Members of the Schmidt College of Medicine’s Integrated Medical Science Department noted that “Be Here Now” was about being fully engaged in what they are doing and remembering the things that make them truly happy—like family and colleagues at work. Others expressed sentiments such as striking a balance between work and life is about spending quality time with family members, pets, and pursuing hobbies or even having more time to pursue personal passions, such as yoga and cross-fit. For one employee who is the sole caretaker of her 90-year-old mother who lives a nursing home, the “Be Here Now” challenge enabled her to enjoy quality time with her husband outside in nature and away from cell phones and the computer.
“This exercise is an extension of our college’s culture and commitment to instill in our students, faculty and staff to be in the moment, to be mindful, and to find ways to reduce stress and burnout,” said Dr. Boiselle. “The response that we received from participating faculty and staff was overwhelmingly positive. They reported feeling re-energized and refreshed after disconnecting from after-hour work emails for a week, and there have been ripple effects of continued moderation in off-hours emails well beyond the conclusion of the exercise. We recognize that this is just one of many innovative ways to keep our faculty, staff, and students from experiencing burnout and staying healthy and happy.”