Tackling physician burnout

Published on: Sep 24, 2017


What is Burnout?

Burnout is the state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one's professional life. The term was first used by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, the author of Burnout: The High Cost of Achievement to describe the consequences of people in high-stress careers with set ideals. Freudenberger noted that burnout was particularly prevalent in ‘helping’ professions like healthcare. In fact, burnout is on the rise in the medical industry. The 2017 Physician Lifestyle Survey reported that 51% of the participants (over 14,000 participants) suffered from burnout. That’s up from 46% in 2015 and 40% in 2013.

Burnout also appears to be more common in women than in men. Approximately 55% of women in the 2017 study reported burnout compared to 45% of men. Conversely, 45% of men and 39% of women reported being happy at work.

Why Physicians Suffer from Burnout

Healthcare is a high-stress industry, making it ripe for burnout. There are a number of things that can cause burnout:

  • Long, demanding hours

  • Pressure from patients or colleagues

  • Employer issues

  • Work overload

  • Too many administrative challenges

Problems outside of work can also lead to burnout. Marital issues, family problems, and financial worries are all major contributors. Understanding how at risk you are for burnout as a physician is important. Once you know what can trigger it, you can begin to develop preventive coping mechanisms to head it off at the pass.

How to Identify and Avoid Physician Burnout

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes when dealing with burnout. Realizing that you are suffering from the condition is a great first step, however. The following steps won’t all work for you, but one or two could provide the solution you need to get rid of burnout.

See your doctor

It may seem counter-intuitive to visit another medical professional given your training, but a physician trained in Stress Management can offer a different perspective and identify issues that may be aggravating the issue. Existing medical conditions, nutritional imbalances, and lack of sleep can all play a part and add to the feeling of burnout.

Be aware of your feelings

When you’re feeling burned out, it can be difficult to determine exactly how you feel and what is wrong, which can add to your stress levels. Being present in the moment is a great way to zero in on exactly how you feel as you are feeling it, so you can isolate any triggers that might not previously have been obvious to you. Doing this frequently throughout the day, even if it’s just for a couple of seconds, can help you understand how you feel and why. Once you know how you feel - whether you are stressed, angry, tense, or tired - and why you feel this way, you can take steps to fix it.

Exercise more

Exercise can be a great stress reliever. If you feel like you are suffering from symptoms of burnout and you don’t have an exercise plan, consider incorporating it into your daily routine. Health professionals have some of the busiest lives of any profession, but even 10 minutes of jumping rope or yoga stretches in the morning can help you focus.

Talk to people

Reaching out to friends, family and even colleagues can be a great way to relieve stress. Even if you only tell someone how you are feeling at that very moment, saying it out loud can help you understand how you feel. Speaking to other professionals can help you understand that other people feel the way you do. Knowing that you are not alone can be a big help.

Get Away from it all

If you’re burned out at work, trying to power through it is not the answer. Instead, take a break and try to get away from it all. It doesn’t have to be for a week; a weekend can work, too. A change of scenery could be just the thing you need to recharge your battery.

Be open to new opportunities

Quitting your job may seem like the most straightforward solution, but there’s no guarantee that you won’t feel exactly the same way in your new job. Before considering quitting, implement some of the strategies above that can help you relieve stress and achieve a better work-life balance. If you still feel burned out after a couple of months of implementing these coping techniques, then you should take a closer look at your hours and responsibilities and consider other career options that will work best for you (ex: locum tenens work; seeing less patients; relocating to a rural setting).

Remember, it’s normal to feel stressed in any profession. But when feeling fed up becomes the norm, it’s time to take steps to deal with burnout before it affects your entire life. Burnout is on the rise in the medical industry. Read this article to identify and avoid physician burnout.