I Was A Sick Superman!



We’ve all heard about doctors with a Type A personality, and how these individuals can be workaholics, driving themselves to burnout. While it’s true this type can definitely suffer from burnout, all personality types have risk factors.  In two weeks in the blog, I’m going to detail the different risk factors for the most common personality types I work with, giving recommendations for avoiding burnout. But today, I have a special interview to share with you; Dr. Arcadio (not his real name) is one of my great clients who shows how his personality type led to burnout and how he recovered to enjoy his practice again.

HF: Can you tell me what factors led to your burnout?

Dr. Arcadio: I have a type A personality. No, probably triple A. Growing up in an immigrant family, and being the first to go to college, I was driven to make something of my life. Getting my degree was a huge accomplishment, and it made me believe I could do anything. I started my own practice and kept telling myself I could work harder and see more patients. I kept doing this until I became a “Sick Superman.”

HF: What did your life look like when you realized you were a “Sick Superman?”

Dr. Arcadio: I was working 6 days a week, 12 -18 hrs a day, and seeing over 70 patients in a day. I was in an underserved area and the patients needed me. I’d been doing this for a number of years, and then one day I started to feel strange. A once very cheerful and kind physician became someone who started to hate being around patients. When I had a difficult patient my head would get really hot and my scalp would start to itch like I was going to blow my top. It was hard to control my temper. My family life was suffering and I was miserable.

HF: Besides working so many hours, what else contributed to your burnout?

Dr. Arcadio: It was not one thing, but I felt attacked on many fronts. Today’s healthcare is “managed” now from the very top of government to the insurance companies, and even pharmacies. And as I mentioned, the physician personality is partly to blame. We like to be perfect, and are expected to be perfect. This includes never calling in sick, being available late at night and for weekend emergencies, and even while on vacation. I felt like I needed to take ALL insurance plans and squeeze patients in even when I was very booked out. I had to see referrals promptly and keep the referring physicians happy. Then there were all of the business decisions and office management to keep the practice going. I felt like I had created a monster that I needed to feed.

HF: How bad did the burnout get?

Dr. Arcadio: Twice I had suicidal thoughts. It was right before I called you. I didn’t have a plan but I just didn’t want to be here and couldn’t see a way out. I have never ever been depressed, so this was very strange for me.

HF: What else was going on in your life during this time?

Dr. Arcadio: I was involved in a bunch of charities and did medical missions in the US and elsewhere. Before I knew it, the frequent, “Sure, I’ll help you with that,” turned into being heavily involved in 8 non-profit organizations… As part of my “burnout treatment” I now must say “No.” Not because I don’t love helping, but it is part of my treatment plan. I’m afraid I have disappointed most of the organizations I used to help, but I have to get better. I will help again, but I’ve had to realize it’s OK to have limits.

HF: Did you know that burnout was common for physicians?

Dr. Arcadio: I had no idea! I got a shock when I called a local doctor whom I’d always admired and respected. When I asked him if he had ever experienced burnout and he said, ”Yes, many times,” it was such a surprise to me. Something I never would have expected. I felt better knowing it was not just me.

HF: What other steps have you taken to counter the burnout?

Dr. Arcadio: Lots. I have cut my hours back significantly. I often leave the office by 3 pm. I have another doctor who alternates Saturdays with me and I am recruiting for an associate so I can scale back even more. I take more days off to spend with my wife and kids. One of my loves is investing and managing rental properties. Now I can devote more time to this as I’m pretty hands on and like to do the work myself. I have to constantly be on guard, and remember that I’ve been a “burnout patient” and make sure I don’t go crazy with over-doing. You don’t just simply get “treated” and go back to normal. To me, physician burnout is like being an addict. You must have a treatment but you will struggle daily with this condition to keep your sanity. I now feel a lot of joy, which was something lost to the “old me.”

Dr. Arcadio’s personality type in the Enneagram System showed him to be very high in the Type 8, which is referred to as “The Challenger,” or “The Leader.”  This type is especially driven, energetic, confident and likes to be in charge. In medicine they are often surgeons. Famous type 8’s include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King, Jr. and “Dr. Phil” McGraw.

In the Enneagram Personality System, there are 9 types, and the test results give you a quantitative distribution among the types. Your highest scoring type is usually your primary type. If you don’t already know your type, but would like to find out before next week’s blog on burnout and personality type, visit the Enneagram site and take a free RHETI test, or the  more accurate Full RHETI test ($12) and discover your type!


Books on Amazon for Physician Burnout

The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Riso and Russ Hudson

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