3 Signs of Physician Burnout and 7 Ways to Tackle It

Published on: Nov 7, 2019


Burnout is the state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life. Healthcare, being a high-stress industry, is ripe for burnout. Repeated studies show an average of 1 in 3 doctors suffer from symptomatic burnout on any given work day.

We’ve all been there: feeling drained and exhausted after a long, stressful day on the job. So how can you tell if you’re headed towards physician burnout or just feeling a little stressed and tired from work? It comes down to the ability to recover your normal levels of physical and emotional energy between shifts. Many people can’t and get caught into the downward spiral of burnout.

There’s actually a psychological assessment to gauge a person’s burnout levels called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) which helps boil the signs of physician burnout down into 3 classic symptoms:

Emotional Exhaustion

You are drained after the office day, hospital rounds or being on call and are unable to recover with time off. This leads to the downward spiral of emotional energy stores and eventually burnout.


An unfeeling and impersonal response towards recipients of one’s service, care, or treatment. This can manifest itself in cynicism and sarcasm about your patients. You complain about them to colleagues, and in general harbor negative, uncaring, and detached feelings towards them. Also known as “compassion fatigue.”

Personal Accomplishment

Your general feelings around your professional competence and success in one’s work with other people. Are you starting to feel like what you’re doing doesn’t really matter anymore? If you’ve started to say, “What’s the use?” in your head, you might be in danger of burnout.


Any feelings of exhaustion, depersonalization or reduced feelings of personal accomplishment that do not respond to time off may be cause for concern. Realizing that you may be suffering from burnout is the first step to tackling the problem, but unfortunately there are no quick fixes. It’s natural to want to fix the problem immediately, but we recommend picking only one, or at most two, of the below ideas to implement at a time. You can’t flip a switch – positive change will happen through a series of smaller steps. And biting off more than you can chew may only make things worse.

Nurse rubbing her forehead in hospital


  • Talk to a doctor to rule out health factors, especially one trained in stress management. There may be physical issues aggravating the situation, like an existing medical condition, nutritional deficiencies, lack of sleep can play a huge part in feeling burned out.

  • Take a self-inventory and be mindful. Ask yourself: Am I getting enough sleep, eating right, finding time to exercise, and taking care of my physical and emotional well-being? Explore meditation and learn breathing exercises that help manage and decrease stress and anxiety in the moment and in the long run.

  • Identify it in the workplace – and get people talking about it. Only physicians can adequately address physician burnout. Don’t wait for the administration to come to the rescue – they are just not capable of fully comprehending the issues you face. Drive a conversation with HR or leadership – remind them of the bottom-line financial benefits of effectively tackling physician burnout – both new patients and new potential hires will flock to you. Once you have an open conversation about it in your organization, you can begin to address it, which is half the battle.

  • Take a break and recharge. Trying to power through it won’t work. Whatever it takes, make time for a break to get away from it all. It doesn’t have to be long – a weekend getaway can be just as effective. The change of scenery can work wonders on stress levels and just might be the thing you needed to reset and recharge your batteries.

  • Join a medical society or association. Many doctors find that professional solidarity and staying connected to a community of physicians can provide a strong support system, a sense of purpose, and feelings of belonging. The resulting feelings of psychological well-being can be very effective in fighting stress and preventing burnout.

  • Reach out and reconnect with someone. Think about which relationships bring you the most joy and satisfaction in your life, and then ask yourself the last time you paid them significant attention. Pick one person you’d like to connect with again, grab your calendar, get a hold of them, and schedule a time to get together within the next two weeks. If it feels good to see them again, make sure to get another one “on the books” before you leave. This should restore some balance in your personal life and help you recharge your emotional batteries.

  • If all else fails, speak with a physician career coach. You might need a complete change of pace. Even if you continue in medicine, they can help you explore other types of roles, different specialties, or things you can add to your resume that might spark a renewed interest, keep you more engaged, and help prevent burnout.

Keep in mind, stress is a normal part of life in any profession. But when it isn’t balanced with the positive feelings you get from being a doctor – the entire reason you became a physician in the first place – it’s time to take a step back and strategize how to fight burnout before it takes over your entire life. Burnout is the state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life. Healthcare, being a high-stress industry, is ripe for burnout.