Dealing with the constant needs of sick patients, the constant hassles of billing, and the constant demands of running a practice can create stress in even the most dedicated doctors. But when the hectic pace of physicians’ lives start affecting their ability to practice, or their relationships at home, a more serious diagnosis is called for: burnout.
Of course, the term burnout has been overused in recent years. These days people suffer “burnout” from their careers as well as overconsumption of their favorite coffee drink, and all things in between. But burnout in professional settings is a very real phenomenon, one that can be caused by the unrelenting stress of today’s workday world and can result in significant harm to your practice and personal life.
What is burnout?
Burnout has been defined in a variety of ways ranging from “mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion” to the poetic “an erosion of the soul.” A 2002 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association
Most doctors are exposed to stressors. But certain personality traits can also contribute to burnout. According to the JAMA article, a compulsively “hard-working” nature, combined with little social or professional support, makes certain physicians more vulnerable. The Physician Work Life Study
What are the symptoms?
A lot of people thrive in fast-paced careers and demanding workplaces. What pushes most burnout victims over the edge is the sense that they’re not getting enough support or compensation in return, as well as the feeling that they have little control over their work situations.
Indeed, the hallmark symptoms of burnout include a loss of passion and satisfaction, a growing sense of detachment from other people, cynicism, hopelessness, emotional or physical exhaustion, and irritability. These emotions have been linked to lowered job performance, poor health, turbulent relationships, depression, anxiety, and addictions. A Newsweek article even goes so far as to refer to physician burnout as “the silent anguish of the healers.”
Finding the cure
If any of this sounds familiar, know that you can heal yourself and regain your former idealism and enthusiasm by taking some relatively simple steps:
1. Emphasize self-care. Take an inventory of what you do for yourself. Are you eating healthy food? Are you exercising? Are you doing anything for stress reduction? Give yourself the same prescription for healthy living that you give your patients. Then follow your own advice.
2. Increase your social network. Make sure you’re spending some time every week with friends, whether it’s hitting the golf course or going out for coffee. Strong social networks have been shown to insulate people from stress.
3. Find professional support. While you may not want to confide in colleagues, an old friend, mentor, or even a professional counselor can provide some perspective. Your local medical association may also have resources.
4. Investigate. Consider meeting with a life or career coach, just to see if what ails you is an underlying yearning for a career change, say, from a large practice to a small one, or from a small practice to an academic setting, or from any kind of clinical practice to a consultancy.
5. Delegate. If you’re running your own practice, it’s easy to think you need to be in charge of everything. Instead, figure out what you’re good at and what you love and let your staff handle the rest, whether it’s dealing with insurance companies or ordering exam-room supplies.
6. Recreate. All work and no play, as the saying goes, makes anyone dull, if not irritable. Figure out what really gives you pleasure in life, whether it’s playing basketball after work, knitting, biking with your kids, or heading out to the opera with friends. Then schedule time to do these things.
7. Tend to the spirit. A number of studies have found that having a strong spiritual or religious life helps to prevent burnout.
8. Tend to your family. It’s so easy these days to put professional demands above those of your family. But nurturing bonds with the people with whom you are the most intimate, your family, can provide a powerful buffer against the stress of the workplace.