Laugh Off Burnout? It May Not Be That Simple, But It Can Certainly Help

Comedy has taught me several keys that have helped alleviate and manage burnout.

Feeling run down, overworked, and burnt out is extremely common in pharmacy, and I have been there many times myself. As a pharmacy student, resident, and practitioner, I struggled with the firehose of information, expectations, and challenges of pharmacy practice. My solution was to train harder. Study more. Even pick up a couple of board certifications.

But do you want to know my secret to overcoming these challenges?

It was by taking an improv comedy class.

Was the secret learning the ability to laugh at every challenging situation and disarm my difficult patients and colleagues with a joke? Well, sometimes that helped. But I wanted to share 3 of the tips I have taken from the comedy stage to my practice that have helped me overcome burnout, build resilience, and kept me going for more than a decade now.

Lesson 1: Acknowledge and accept reality. As an improv comedian, the first thing we learned is how to say “Yes, and” to whatever is said to us on stage. That means that no matter what someone says or does, we have to agree to it and build upon it to move our comedy scenes forward. How can this help you?

There have been many busy days in my career during which I found myself wishing I was anywhere but at work. I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t even have to deal with this.” Yet this pushback was only making my job harder by delaying the action I needed to address the challenge before me. Once I simply was able to say “yes” to whatever happened, it allowed me to get to work fixing the problem, which is much more satisfying and useful than living in those moments of denial.

Another benefit of saying “yes” is applying some humor to the ridiculous situations we find ourselves in. Yes, there will be challenges, and it is ok to laugh at the absurdity of them. Someone asks you for a TV at the pharmacy counter? A patient spills the jelly from inside of their donut on your desk? Someone demands a prostate exam? What else can you do but laugh? And yes, these are just a sample of the very real things I have had the chance to laugh at in my career.

Lesson 2: Connect with patients and each other. Remember why you are entering, or got into, the field pharmacy. For nearly all of us, that reason was to help patients. But when you are feeling burned out and frustrated, it can be useful to get back to one of the basics of what I apply on stage and in clinic: connection. When performing a comedy scene, I am connecting with my scene partners as well as trying to connect with an audience. Improv comedy, at its best, is a team sport. And guess what health care is at its best? A team sport.

One of the worst feelings you can have as a pharmacist is when you feel alone in your job or career. It seems overly simple, but by focusing on connecting with your patients and the people you work with, you can find inspiration, identify the critical issues to work on, and even find joy in pharmacy. Humans crave connections, and while health care can seem robotic at times, getting back to the human element has helped salvage many challenging days for me.

Lesson 3: Listen and respond. One of the most frustrating parts of being a pharmacist is when you don’t know the right answer. Getting challenged on a daily basis with questions and problems you don’t know the answer to can wear on you. Most diligent, intelligent, and dedicated pharmacists respond by thinking hard about the problem. Think of an answer. Think of the data. Think of the trials.

Thinking is what a lot of improv comedians believe they need to do too in order to say the funniest line. But the answer is the same for pharmacists and comedians on stage when it comes to solving a problem or making people laugh: Stop thinking so much.

Thinking takes you out of the moment, making it more likely that you will miss crucial information that could actually help you solve the problem. Instead, it is better to sit in the moment, listen, and then respond. Whether dealing with a difficult patient or a punchline set up, the answer is usually not in your head, but right in front of you as the other person speaks.

And listening leads me to the final piece of the comedy puzzle. While comedy is a useful tool with patients and coworkers, if you don't listen, you may find yourself using it at the wrong time. Humor is a powerful tool, but only when wielded at the right time. By listening and responding, you will know when the time for humor with a patient is, and when it is not.

I hope you can take these tools into your practice to help you fight the battle against burnout. Remember the keys: acknowledge and accept reality; connect with others; and listen and respond in the moment. If you can do that, not only will you be a more satisfied and effective pharmacist, but you will also be able to find a few laughs along your journey too. And if I remember anything from my years of training and practice it’s this: Laughter is the best medicine.

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