Chronic exhaustion, cynicism and detachment from work, feelings of ineffectiveness, isolation, and interpersonal conflicts.
These are just a few of the most common signs of physician burnout that I see all the time. Even though physicians tend to be more burned out than any other profession, we still tend to ignore and dismiss it.
A lot of us act like burnout isn’t real, and we work harder and longer hours to overcome it. Which only makes things worse. And that’s not just for us—I’m talking about for our patients, colleagues, employers, and families too.
Luckily, many physicians and their employers have options to overcome and prevent burnout before serious consequences set in. I’ve helped put some of these changes in place in my own medical group.
Why are physicians experiencing burnout?
Burnout isn’t a one-time event. You don’t just one day say, “I’m burnt out,” and pull yourself out of it the next. Burnout is really a culmination of multi-factorial stresses over time. We have a culture in healthcare to work really hard and never say no to things, so we pile on the activities, and that takes a cumulative effect over time.
It’s not just about seeing patients and performing administrative tasks and paperwork. You add to that financial stresses, family commitments, and malpractice, and it’s no wonder nearly 46% of physicians report experiencing at least one symptom of serious burnout. That’s nearly half of us!
Some specialties have it worse than others, particularly critical care and emergency medicine, with 53% and 52% of physicians reporting burnout, respectively, according to the 2015 Medscape survey. Family medicine, internal medicine, general surgery, and HIV/infectious disease specialists aren’t far behind, with half of physicians in each group reporting burnout.
As an emergency room physician, I’ve been there myself. When I hit the 10-year mark of my practice, I had been doing clinical work and a lot of the administrative tasks without having an outlet for myself to relax. I’d work all week, and then on my “days off,” I’d be doing administrative work. I had no release valve or way to decompress. So at that point, feeling clearly burnt out and overwhelmed, I went down in hours and cut certain work tasks out of my life. That gave me some days off to address the stress in my life.
But not everybody has that option. Sometimes it’s up to our employers to step in and address the underlying issues.
While not all physicians take it upon themselves to address and avoid burnout, their employers can take certain measures to improve morale in the workplace. Granted, every specialty and hospital system is different. But the lowest-hanging fruit can be broken down into three actions that healthcare organization can take.
Recognize physician burnout is a real and common problem.
No. 1 is to acknowledge that burnout is a major problem—and not just for physicians themselves. Burnt out physicians impact patient satisfaction, the risk of malpractice, productivity levels, and even other colleagues. The longer employers ignore the fact that their physicians are overworked and overstressed, the more of a ripple effect that burnout can have throughout the entire organization.
Educate physicians to identify warning signs and avoid burnout.
Employers can bring in thought leaders to educate physicians about what burnout looks like, what causes it, and what physicians can do to overcome burnout once it takes hold. Seminars and educational materials can engage physicians in their own health—which we so often forget while we care for everyone else’s.
Provide physicians with resources and support to overcome burnout.
Counseling offers physicians a sounding board for the problems they’re facing. It can be a way for physicians to vent, uncover unhealthy lifestyle patterns, and find solutions, either on their own or through a counselor’s advice. Depositions are particularly stressful times for physicians. Providing paid time off—or even making it mandatory—could give physicians breathing room to deal with emotional and mental fatigue. It also prevents the stress of the deposition being compounded by the added stress of losing money from taking time off work.
Every hospital and practice is trying to improve patient satisfaction. Patients need physicians who are alert, focused, and engaged with them. Employers depend on productive physicians to see and successfully treat all of their patients. But burnt out physicians struggle to provide engaged care and maintain a high level of productivity.
Assisting physicians to either address or prevent burnout benefits the entire system. With three simple steps—recognition of burnout, education, and providing resources for physicians—we can make a significant difference in the lives of physicians and our patients.
How have you boosted morale in your medical practice? Let us know in the comments!