Doctors and Secondhand Stress

December 11, 2013

PJ-BS076_WORKFA_DV_20131210184542This WSJ piece on Secondhand Stress is worth a peek.  It  profiles those fast talking, multitasking employees who pass their stress to those around them.  Of course, I see the world through my own lens and all I could think of was doctors.   The busy doctor is almost cliche.  And patients are at risk for secondhand stress.

“Rushing blocks thoughtful communication and creates worries among colleagues”  Ditto docs and patients.

What’s remarkable is that almost universally patients assume their problems are too small for me.  Questions and inquiries are often prefaced with the belief that I’ve got too much going on to help them with something perceived as less-than-important.   All of this comes down to mindfulness and focus in the interactions we have with patients.  We have to intentionally put ourselves in a place where we’re given to the patient for the time we are with them.

“A calm, unruffled work style is still a mark of competency, management experts say.  Executives who have figured it out … are poised and strategic. That’s a big difference from reacting all day”

What goes for executives goes for physicians.  The further I go in medicine the better I get at transitioning from stressful, reactive situations to calm, reserve and focus.  Managing my father from 2,000 miles away had it challenges but allowed me to practice this type of rapid transition.  Sometimes it takes a little bit of theater.

Secondhand stress is worth thinking about.  And it’s not just for executives.


Susannah Fox December 12, 2013 at 11:47 am


My desktop background at work is a Jessica Hagy grid which can be viewed (and grabbed for your own desktop) here:

I try to stay in that upper right quadrant, at home, at work, in my volunteer life, everywhere. It’s a joyful challenge. I’ve had multiple people tell me that when things get really intense and I seem calmer than ever, they calm down, too. And we just go forward together, into that tough meeting, into cleaning up the spilled milk, into solving whatever it is we need to solve.

DrV December 12, 2013 at 12:05 pm

That’s brilliant, thanks. I think this role of the harried doctor comes with some social benefits. I almost embraced it when I was younger – but like so many things that I did years ago, I finally realized that they didn’t become me.

That comment about seeming calmer….I find myself adopting the same mindset. Be it true focus or an element of theater, the result with those around us can be dramatic.

Wendy Sue Swanson December 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm

A few years ago I approached my clinic about my mounting roles and mounting stress. I knew I was taking on too much and my stress was effervescent — how terrible for the MA, RN and patients with whom I worked at the time. I was spouting out stress for the responsibilities that were all mine and transferring to people that didn’t need it.

I made a huge number of changes and things changed. Today, clinic feels sacred to me — a place to focus, turn off the phone, hone in on patients and listen. A place to lead. Everything changed because I hated the energy I was bringing and I was lucky that others helped me. But… that being said:

As a natural fast-talker I don’t want to head nod that all fast talking and high voltage energy is toxic. Some real energy, some real outrage, and some sincere passion flowing is necessary for big changes. But there is a delicate line that we rapid-fire talkers have to remember in inspiring belief and being productive.

Thanks for all of this reflection and ongoing wisdom, Bryan.

Finding time for reflection, renewal, and quiet is essential for good work. How we all do it is entirely individual but this serves up a beautiful reminder that leadership comes in all forms — but is potentially most powerful when full of grace.

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