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Don’t let burnout become a total eclipse of the wonders of our work

August 23, 2017
by H. Steven Moffic
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“Here comes the sun.
Here comes the sun.
And I say it’s all right.
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes . . .”

—The Beatles

Perhaps some of you were fortunate enough to view our rarely seen solar eclipse in totality this week. If not, perhaps you still experienced the unusual atmospheric effect of the partial eclipse stages. Even watching on TV or seeing photos may have led to some sense of wonder.

Very fortunately, my wife and I were able to view the totality in Carbondale, Illinois. With another eclipse crossing the United States in 2024, it is definitely worth planning ahead to see it.

In the meanwhile, it struck me that this phenomenon is a metaphor for our work.

Therapeutic alliance

Just as the sun provides daily warmth to some degree for the planet, so do we for our patients. Indeed, research indicates over and over that a positive relationship with a patient—in other words, a therapeutic alliance—is the most impactful factor in their improvement. Although we can’t approximate our ability to predict solar eclipses with our ability to predict the future of our patients, we can still use the best of our science and our expert guidelines to supplement the beautiful art our work can be.

Yet many times, our warmth is impeded by clinical burnout. When we are burning out, we suffer, as do our patients.

For the brief eclipse of the sun, the moon was the causative factor. For us at work, it is mainly the systems we work in that disempower us in our quest for healing and impede our light.

Though not anywhere as brief as the sun’s eclipse, our burnout can be reduced and our warmth re-established. My wife called this a rebirth. The eclipse suggests how we might experience that at work.

Feeling of awe

Anyone that I met who traveled great distances to view the total eclipse was in awe, even if they suffered major obstacles in getting there. In many moments of trying to help patients, I felt awe, too, whenever we seemed to find a light to improvement, an insight to brighten their soul.

The mind is awesome, and it should feel awesome to help someone’s mind to work better. Sometimes, in a suicidal patient, we can even save a mind and a life. Remind yourself of that again and again. Remember when you felt that in your darkest moments.

Perhaps the dark eeriness of the eclipse parallels how a patient feels about the disturbance of their mind. That realization should help our empathy. Moreover, if the opportunity arises, asking the patient how they felt about the solar eclipse may reveal how they feel about certain aspects of your relationship, including how they feel when you are away.

If you are an administrator, radiate life-giving warmth to your staff. Help them grow and thrive. If you chance upon obstacles in their way, or create them yourself, find ways to remove them or empower them to do so. Just as a brilliant diamond seems to emerge when the moon begins to move away from the sun’s path, recognize that some of your staff may be “diamonds in the rough” that you can help polish. That is worth any of the trouble to do so. In fact, it can be priceless.



H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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