HealthJanuary 30, 2020

How to identify and address physician burnout

By: Marilyn Chau, MD

Though being a doctor can be incredibly rewarding, most would agree that it can also be stressful, from the long hours to the high stakes. So what happens when this stress becomes exhausting and unbearable?

Burnout is a common yet controversial topic within the medical field. While some argue that identifying and treating the problem is an appropriate method for combating it, others suggest that using the term “physician burnout” wrongly places the blame of exhaustion on doctors, instead of addressing the deeper causes. Neurology Today, for example, has extensively covered research suggesting that burnout affects physicians differently based on their age and gender, and that mitigating the overall problem requires systemic changes more than individual improvements in self-care.

Regardless of its causes, burnout is a serious issue that demands active attention. In a Mayo Clinic study, doctors experiencing burnout were more likely to make medical errors, though a review published in Medical Care has called for more rigorous research into the relationship between burnout and patient outcomes. And the physical and emotional fatigue many doctors face can take its toll—suicide rates are higher among doctors compared to the general population, according to a study cited in NPR.

Here’s how to identify and begin to address burnout before it takes over.


To learn more about addressing physician burnout, visit AudioDigest.


Identifying physician burnout

According to the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term “burnout” to describe the stress that can result from working in professions focused on helping others. The term has since been further clarified in the “Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual” as a psychological symptom associated with “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment.”

The symptoms of burnout are similar to those of depression. Harvard Health Publishing notes that they include feeling exhausted and detached, finding yourself with an increasingly cynical outlook, constantly feeling like a failure (despite your many successes) and no longer enjoying your work. A key distinguisher between clinical depression and burnout is the context: Burnout is a psychological problem within a specific context—in this case, the day to day life of a physician.

3 strategies for addressing burnout

Avoiding or reversing physician burnout is key to improving your well-being and your patient care alike. However, effectively doing so requires acknowledging that physician burnout tends to develop over time. Most physicians don’t burn out overnight, so there aren’t any quick solutions. And, of course, burnout can be tied to workplace factors outside your control. Still, there are steps you can take to begin to combat this problem in your own life.

1. Acknowledge burnout for what it is (and is not)

Too often, identifying with burnout’s symptoms can make a physician feel like a failure. But feeling emotional exhaustion and reduced personal accomplishment at work does not mean that you have failed. Instead, it likely means that the system in which you work has failed you. While you’ve dedicated time and energy to helping others, the pace of your work environment hasn’t left you with room to rest or recuperate after a trying day.

2. Recognize that you’re not alone

What might feel like an isolating experience for you likely isn’t unique at all. Honest, open conversations with colleagues will reveal that it’s not just a single doctor in a practice who’s experiencing at least one symptom of burnout. Having these honest conversations may not only help the first physician who brings up the topic; it could even save the life of a colleague. Although the medical field has traditionally made little room for physician vulnerability, acknowledging that these problems do exist is essential for effecting change.

3. Start with small changes

Combating physician burnout in your own life starts with consciously deciding to make one small change to brighten your day, either at work or at home. This can even mean just focusing on something you already do (or want to do), like yoga, which research suggests can reduce anxiety and depression, according to Forbes. But whether it’s dedicating 30 minutes before work to clear your mind with meditation or setting aside a pager-free hour after work to explore a hobby, striving to keep work from taking over your life can help create balance between your identity as a physician and your identity as a human.

Marilyn Chau, MD