physician burnout

When it comes to dealing with stressed out physicians, perhaps we should learn from the Babembas?

The Babemba tribe in South Africa has a unique way of responding to tribe members who get out of line. Instead of punishment or reprimand, the member of the Babemba who acts irresponsibly is placed in the center of a circle of all the other members of the tribe. Then one by one, the members of the circle recall in great detail every positive action the person at the center of the circle has ever done.

According to Jack Kornfield’s book, The Art of Forgiveness, this process can take days. After everyone in the circle has spoken, the circle is broken and the person at the center is literally and symbolically brought back into the tribe with great celebration.

In recent years, much discussion has circulated about whether this tribe and the circle exercise truly exist. In my opinion, that’s the wrong question. The question we should be asking is: Could the practice help us and what could we learn from it about forgiveness?


We’ve all been there

We all know physicians who have lost their cool and snapped at staff in the O.R., their office staff, or even their patients. This usually happens on super busy days, after the exhausted doctor has been on call all week. That’s when the proverbial “final straw” breaks the camel’s back.

We have all been there or been very, very close. Trust me. All of us. Outbursts or other rude behavior usually results in sit-down discussions where senior partners or Head Nurses talk “at us” as a “warning” or a reprimand. In my experience, they most certainly would never take the time to list our virtues. I wonder what might happen if we followed the example of the Babemba tribe, instead?

Learning from the Babemba

Is there a lesson in their practice that we can use to support doctors?

What if we surrounded the agitated doctor with a cloak of empathy for the day, rather than a list of their transgressions?

What if the conversation was more about acknowledging the doctor’s efforts, and how much his or her peers appreciate them?

What if empathy and compassion were our automatic responses when we see colleagues who are tightly wound?

Rather than lecturing them on having a “stiff upper lip” and “minding their manners”, what if we reached out with understanding?

I think it would be startling to see the turnaround. Instead of doctors being put on the defensive, they could relax enough to acknowledge the tough spot they’ve found themselves in.


Me, too

The two best words to hear when life gets rough are, “Me, too.” Knowing that we are not alone and that our peers recognize our pain can go a long way in starting the healing process.

Why not practice being a catalyst of change at your workplace? Extend compassion, first. Practice the Babemba Blessing.



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