In the first week of March, the LCC community was privileged to host Dr. Benjamin Doolittle from the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Doolittle and Dr. Marlene Wall, President of LCC met only by a coincidence at Hope College in Michigan, during the summer of 2019. Months later, Dr. Doolittle arrived in Klaipėda where he presented two open lectures and workshops for students. Dr. Doolittle’s expertise in the field of burnout has already fostered many engaging conversations here at LCC. How does Dr. Doolittle combine teaching, medical practice, and being an ordained pastor at a local church? We had a chance to ask him some of these questions and more.
Dr. Doolittle, you met Dr. Wall during the summer of 2019 at Hope College. How did you go from meeting to deciding to visit LCC this March?
I am here at LCC because I ran into Dr. Marlene Wall out of a beautiful moment of serendipity. Dr. Wall was visiting Hope College in Michigan, as the President of LCC and I was a delegate for the Reformed Church in America from my hometown. I was wearing a hat with the Camino of Santiago de Compostela logo on. As she recognized my hat we greeted each other. Dr. Wall was also with one of the board members, Ronald Mulder, whom I met the previous day. Dr. Wall and I started a conversation, exchanged business cards, and later I had a Skype conversation with Dr. Benjamin Giffone, a director of the Center for Faith and Human Flourishing at LCC. The rest is history, and I am extremely grateful to be here at LCC.
During your stay here, you led two workshop sessions on the topic of the Blue Zones of Happiness. Could you provide more details about the workshop and students’ reaction to it?
I became interested in the work of Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, and New York Times-bestselling author. In one of his works, Dan looked at certain countries that have a high prevalence of centenarians, people who live to 100. He found communities like this living in Okinawa, Sardinia, Southern California, and Costa Rica. Dan expanded his research to investigate which countries were happier. I thought that what was good for the country is probably good for my Residency program at Yale. The Blue Zones of Happiness include five different domains that are associated with a happy life: having enough money to live and a certain amount of health; having a purpose in life, Japanese also call it “ikigai”, which is the idea of why I get out of bed in the morning. Another aspect includes having a sense of community, a sense of social connection with people. The workshop that I led for students looked at the strengths and challenges in each of those five areas as a community at LCC. The students here proved to be very smart, thoughtful, and enthusiastic about the workshop. It seems that they have a strong social connectedness here.
Prior to the workshop, you were also invited to lead the institutional Working Lunch for LCC faculty and staff. The topic was aimed to discuss burnout in the workplace. Would you share more about the presentation and why are you interested in this specific topic?
I have been involved with research on burnout for 17 years now. Even though I am not a researcher, because I take care of patients and train doctors, I was still involved in a variety of projects. I got interested in the topic of burnout in physicians. If a physician is burned out they often get depressed, divorced; some might also develop an addiction, and while it impacts the physician, it also has an impact on patients and institutions. My job at Yale is to train resident physicians who graduate from medical school and come to Yale to be trained. I always worry about their spirit. I worry about how they are doing because they are all great doctors and terrific people. I am worried their spirit can be run down because it is a hard life. As I became more interested in the topic of burnout, I was able to do various research projects with my colleagues. I also think that burnout is cross-cultural and translates across professions. A physician can be burned out, a professor or a staff person can also be burned out. During the lecture for staff and faculty, I explained the idea of burnout and presented some research findings as well.
While being a physician at the Yale School of Medicine, you get to experience cases of physicians who get burned out. How do you as a professional and individual take care of yourself if you notice the signs of burnout?
I am grateful that I have a lot of support from my family. I am grateful that I have the kind of job that allows for a lot of flexibility and I am glad that Yale really supports and encourages all of these different things. That makes it a lot easier. I think we all get burned out, but some of the treatment can include being more connected with people, having a sense of community. Being able to rest and take a break from things. I think part of the reason why I do not get burned out is that I get to do a lot of different things. However, if burnout does occur we have to take steps to take care of ourselves and acknowledge our weaknesses and also be gentle on ourselves.
These are some great points you have mentioned when the burnout happens to an individual. But what about a company-wide burnout? How do supervisors need to act if they notice burnout at the workplace?
I have a lot of thoughts about this because I think the answer lies in culture and modeling. The culture of an organization needs to value the human beings who work there, and if a company does that, I think people respond. The modeling part includes the idea that faculty and supervisors have to model what it is to be an authentic human being. We all have good days and bad days. Some days we work really hard, and on other days we should have the freedom to do what we need to do. If a supervisor recognizes that we are all a little broken and we all need a little bit of forgiveness, I think that sends a rather strong message and it affects the culture. What is interesting is that it is extremely hard to program that, and the idea of a wellness workshop is not enough. There are things that have the potential to make people’s jobs easier that are very structural and I believe we always need to think about those. That can include maternity and paternity leaves, or having some kind of flexibility in your job. Another important aspect that makes a difference in people’s happiness and in their jobs is the ability to grow. If people are doing the same thing over and over and not learning new skills, not growing in their own intellectual expertise, it is tough. But if in the institution people are learning and trying new things, they tend to like their job more and it is irrespective of salary and actual promotion. Of course, people want to get promoted in their job titles, but actual happiness in the workplace is oftentimes disconnected from salary.
Dr. Doolittle, how do you combine being a doctor and being an ordained pastor?
I do not really separate the two. I really feel like I am always a physician, while at the same time I am always a pastor. My identity is both. If there was a word to describe what being both is, I would be that rather than splitting it. I think a physician is all about healing and sometimes we heal with the pill or stitches, and sometimes we heal with presence and care. Whether we do that as a pastor or a doctor is just the means to the same end. Philosophically for me, being a physician and a pastor are exactly the same. The way it manifests itself in the world is that some days I wear a white coat and I go to the hospital and I take care of sick people. Then I go and serve a small church in New Haven, Connecticut, and I may then some days also teach at the Divinity School a class on Theology and Medicine. I run a program called the Program for Medicine, Spirituality, and Religion, where I try to foster a dialogue around these two issues at the medical center.
Now that you have visited LCC and led a few lectures and workshops here, what are your impressions of our university?
I am impressed by the sense of rich community, a sense of joy, and the warm collegiality between students and faculty. I enjoyed my time here in Klaipėda, as I learned more about the city and the country. I am extremely grateful to have been here, as it is a great institution. I wish all the students the best of luck, and I wish all the success for the mission of LCC.