Physician burnout: What can you do to lessen the burden?
As a healthcare provider, there’s no question that the work you do is essential, even heroic. You spend long hours caring for patients and do what you can to stay up to date on the latest medical innovations.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed just how heroic you and your colleagues are. But behind that heroism, an issue has been growing for years, even before the pandemic — physician burnout.
According to a Medscape study conducted at the end of 2020, 42% of physicians reported feeling burnout. The critical care specialty reported the highest rate at 51%, which is understandable considering the intense demands on critical care during the pandemic.
Work-related burnout is enough of an issue that in 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout in its International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon. The definition of burnout includes three components:
- Energy depletion and exhaustion
- Increased mental distance and negativity towards your job
- Lowered professional effectiveness
Physician burnout is an experience you may feel hesitant to discuss based on the stigma around mental health and doctors. You may be afraid to speak up about your mental health struggles for fear of career repercussions. These fears include licensing being called into question and difficulty renewing, loss of reputation by peers and administration, and turning off patients from the practice.
Since research on physician burnout is ongoing, we don’t have all the answers yet. In the meantime, here are some tips to help lessen the burden and get the conversation started.
Define burnout in your own terms
Burnout is a blanket term that can mean different things to different people. The first step to overcoming burnout, once you’ve figured out that you’re feeling it, is to define how and why you feel the way you do. There’s a good chance that you had these feelings before the pandemic, but they’ve only heightened since.
Here are some feelings you could have that may be leading to your burnout:
- Do you experience fear for your patients’, coworkers’ and families’ lives? What about for your own safety?
- Did you have to go through large amounts of time isolated from others, maybe during quarantine or from working long hours?
- Has your schedule made you feel overworked and tired?
- Has all of the extra administrative work bogged you down?
- Do you feel like people discredit or ignore your medical advice?
All of these could factor into why you’re feeling “burnt out.” Defining your personal burnout puts meaning to the word and can help you organize your feelings and experiences.
Once you define the reasons behind your burnout, go down your list and create action items for each. You don’t have to set them in stone, but trying to develop actionable solutions can help relieve some of the stress you’re feeling.
Here are some examples to help you get started.
Set work hours and stick to them
If your schedule makes you feel overworked and isolated, setting defined work hours, and sticking to them, can ease your stress. Emergencies and exceptions are understandable, but creating a guideline to follow and enforcing it can help you feel more in control.
Focus on your immediate practice and work
As a clinician with extensive training and experience in your field, it can be frustrating when patients and the public don’t listen to your medical recommendations. Plus, feeling helpless for the safety of yourself and those around you can add to that frustration.
Realistically, all you can do is focus on the patient and work that’s directly in front of you. Stop doomscrolling news sites and focusing on the “what ifs.”
Streamline paperwork and administrative work
There’s not much you can do when you have admin work looming over your head. If you don’t end up doing the work right away, it’ll still be there when you come back.
When setting your schedule, factor in that administrative time so you won’t have to take paperwork home. Also, try asking if a secretary or office worker would be willing to pitch in from time to time. You may be able to streamline some workflows with a little extra help.
Your administration has the most power to create change. They have a big say in appointment scheduling and how to develop an adaptive staffing plan. Approaching administration may seem daunting, but you’re likely not the only one among your colleagues feeling burnt out. With the stigma surrounding mental health among physicians, being more open and honest with those at your organization can help bring awareness, encouraging others to open up and ease the stigma.
The American Medical Association created the AMA’s STEPS Forward™ toolkits that provide tactics for involving leadership and ways to address physician burnout. Simply sending along these toolkits could help get the conversation started.
Find better work-life balance
You’ve probably heard plenty of recommendations to use yoga or meditation to relieve stress (and if those tactics work for you, great!). But stress relief can also come from a better work-life balance.
When you’re at home and off work, be fully present in your personal life and interests. Don’t neglect your work duties, but have a clear separation between your job and home life. Say you have surgery coming up. Prepare how you usually would, but when you’re off the clock, focus on your own life and try not to let upcoming procedures or job responsibilities weigh down your mind. Better said than done, right?
Even taking small steps to better enjoy your time off could make it easier for you in the long run. Leave your phone at home when you walk the dog or turn it to silent when you’re at the park with the kids. As much as your patients and colleagues appreciate all your hard work, making sure you live a happy, healthy life is essential, too.
Remember that you’re not invincible
You probably hear the term “hero” a lot when people describe what you do as a physician. But you’re not superhuman. Healthcare careers are demanding, with years of education, constant innovation and patients’ lives at stake.
Part of the reason you might be feeling burnt out is that you’re trying to meet impossible expectations, whether they’re set by your peers or yourself. Start to lessen the stigma of mental health among physicians by reframing in your mind that it’s okay to not feel okay. You’re human, after all.
Therapy can be a tricky topic with the stigma around mental health and physicians. But if you’ve reached a point where your burnout significantly affects you or your patients, it’s better to try to solve the problem than make a mistake. Knowing when it’s time to seek help will allow you to feel better and ultimately provide the best care for your patients.
Try talking to a trusted leadership team member or a colleague about your therapy options. If you’re still feeling uncomfortable, ease into therapy and see if a few short sessions work for you initially. If you don't want to wait for a referral or don’t have time to travel to an office, try using an online therapy service like BetterHelp.
Physician burnout isn’t a one-off experience. Healthcare professionals all over have felt the effects of burnout at least some point in their careers. But with the proper care and attention, we can try to lessen that burden and help reduce the stigma around mental health struggles among doctors.
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