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Physician Burnout: The Warning Signs and 5 Steps to Take to Avoid It

Physician burnout is an epidemic hidden in plain sight amongst the providers on the front lines. Over the last 25 years, repeated studies have shownan ...

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|Mar 22|magazine10 min read

Physician burnout is an epidemic hidden in plain sight amongst the providers on the front lines.

Over the last 25 years, repeated studies have shown an average of 1 in 3 doctors suffer from symptomatic physician burnout on any given office day. That statistic is stunning enough. The fact that this average is worldwide and regardless of specialty is even more fascinating. Some surveys – typically among surgeons – show physician burnout rates over 70 percent.

There is no reason to think nursing burnout, or administrator burnout are any less prevalent. CEO turnover in health care is the highest of all measured industries.

3 Physician Burnout Warning Signs

The difference between physician burnout and simple work stress is your ability to recover your normal reserves of physical and emotional energy between shifts. If you can recover and function normally next week, fantastic. If your energy is in a long downward spiral and you are tapped out and unable to give your best at work … you are most likely suffering from physician burnout.

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The three classic signs and symptoms of physician burnout are:

1. Emotional Exhaustion

You are drained after the office day, hospital rounds or being on call and are unable to recover with time off. Over time your energy level begins to follow a downward spiral.

2. Depersonalization

You find yourself being cynical and sarcastic about patients. Your attitude is negative, callous, detached and uncaring. You can feel put upon by your patients and complain about them to your colleagues. This aspect of burnout is commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue.” It is often easier for you to see this in others than notice it in yourself.

3. Reduced Accomplishment

Here you begin to question whether you are offering quality care and whether what you do really matters at all. 

5 Ways to Avoid Burnout

1. Practice smart scheduling.

Chances are there are certain times of the year when your waiting room is filled with patients (and other times when it isn't). If possible, book your schedule to allow more meaningful time off during low-volume periods — rather than being "trapped" in the office with a light schedule for the full week.

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2. Start a hobby.

Making time for outside endeavors is often linked with professional satisfaction. So if you enjoy writing, for example, consider creating your own blog, or contributing to another medical blog. Or take a recreational class on something totally unrelated to medicine at your local college.

3. Go for a walk during the day.

Many physicians say they don't have time to fit a regular exercise program into their busy schedules. But most everyone has time to take a 10-minute walk once a day. If you're just too busy to take that lunchtime stroll, follow the Mayo Clinic's advice and take a 30-minute walk after work to blow off steam. Just remember: Making patient rounds doesn't count!

4. Delegate tasks.

Sometimes burnout is a simple case of a physician taking on too many responsibilities. To make your life more manageable, delegate tasks that don't require your talents/skills in the clinical area as well as the management arena. This will allow you to spend more time focusing on patient care.

5. Make time for family.

Those who feel the most burned-out tend to be those whose lives are out of balance. To avoid the resentment over an all-work-no-play life, play with your kids on a daily basis. For physicians with adolescents and teenagers, schedule time for a game of catch or making dinner as a family. 

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