Residents take wellness to heart

Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

The statistics for burnout in physicians are all too familiar and simply can’t be ignored. One of the more recent surveys undertaken by the Canadian Medical Association reported that of the 2,947 doctors surveyed across Canada, 26 per cent said they experienced burnout and 34 per cent reported symptoms of depression.

Drs. Ali Bateman, Ernest Chan and Camilla Stepniak are just three Schulich Medicine & Dentistry residents who are developing wellness initiatives supporting their peers in hopes of reducing burnout and enhancing mental health. From retreats, to introducing reflection practices, the approach residents and departments are taking is as diverse as the subject itself.

The conversations about wellness and burnout begin early on in medical school studies, but current residents say the warnings don’t hit home for them until they are doing their residency training.

“I remember warnings about burnout and wellness through medical school,” said Dr. Stepniak. “But, until you start to go through it and feel it yourself, you don’t really understand it.”

Dr. Stepniak says that’s where senior residents are important vocal supporters for junior residents who tend to be at the biggest risk of burnout when the early years start to get overwhelming.

“Having people to talk to is so important,” said Dr. Stepniak. “When you become close to the other residents, sharing what you are going through is incredibly helpful because they are or were in the same situation.”

At Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, the Learner Equity & Wellness (LEW) Office is part of those early conversations and is also there to support residents throughout their training.

“The mission of our office is to support residents as they learn how to stay well and juggle the demands of their professional and personal lives,” said Dr. Donald Farquhar, Assistant Dean, LEW. “We respond to individual residents in need with counsel and coaching and we teach groups of residents how to build resilience at the individual level and in their work and learning environments.”

Dr. Farquhar recently attended the Division of Urology’s Professional Association of Residents of Ontario Half Day and shared his thoughts about the team effort supporting wellness.

“We’re all in this together,” he told the residents.

Dr. Chan, who participated in the Half Day was grateful for Dr. Farquhar’s attendance and cited him as a great role model for students. He says that the Program has made wellness a mandate and has identified wellness representatives at the resident and faculty level.

While Urology residents were taking part in activities for their wellness half day, Dr. Stepniak was putting the final plans together for the second annual wellness retreat for Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Taking place in Grand Bend, the residents spent the morning doing team building activities that focused on getting to know each other, communication, trust and collaboration. Unstructured time was also built into the day so that the residents could relax together as a group.

The Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation has developed a multi-pronged approach by introducing different informal wellness activities that take place during each academic year, as well as consistent reflective practice and formal wellness and burnout teaching.

Residents have the opportunity to take part in formal reflective practice exercises and participate in formal wellness education as part of a faculty and trainee wellness half day that was co-developed by Dr. Bateman in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Dr. Jonathan Gregory, a resident in Psychiatry. This half day combines faculty members and residents from both departments, and empowers residents and faculty alike to share their experiences, identify personal and institutional risk factors for burnout, foster civility, and develop change ideas.

In addition, informal resident-initiated wellness half days have been taking place during the past year. Dr. Bateman, says that these half days took place during scheduled academic half days to emphasize the importance of wellness and included activities such as going out for breakfast as a group and doing a kickboxing class together.

Focusing on creating a workplace culture of belonging, engagement and camaraderie, the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology has established a social committee that brings all team members together and hosts pizza lunches, mini-golf and axe-throwing activities, as well as specific resident-focused events.

They have also established a Transparent Resident Support Team (TRST), which focuses on resident wellness initiatives built directly from the recommendations of the resident body.

Through TRST, the department is working to address parts of the hidden curriculum and department culture by integrating resident wellness policies into the postgraduate education curriculum infrastructure. Additionally, team members support individual residents who require academic, professional or personal assistance by providing them with contacts and resources if an issue reaches outside their scope.

“Wellness and burnout are complex issues,” said Dr. Chan who recently participated in a panel discussion on burnout and mental health and is involved in activities within his Department. “Each person’s experience with residency and their health is different, and it can be very different between specialties as well-, and I don’t believe there is a catch-all.”

All the residents agree that continuing to talk about burnout and wellness is necessary and that having a supportive program director helps to turn conversations into action.