Physician, Heal Thyself: 10 Steps to Help Avoid Burnout

Being a physician is a demanding job that can result in a burnout. It entails handling serious responsibilities, enduring long hours, navigating a complex and constantly shifting health care system, and dealing with a built-in level of failure. In other words, patients often get sick, sometimes don’t comply with treatment and occasionally die — no matter what a physician does.

Not all of the reasons for burnout are work-related. A physician may have significant issues regarding his or her own health or personal life. But, generally, the three symptoms of physician burnout are exhaustion, cynicism and doubt. Exhaustion isn’t just physical, but can be mental, emotional — or even spiritual. Cynicism, or depersonalization, is sometimes dubbed “compassion fatigue.” And doubt, of course, is a lack of utility: wondering why you bother.

Self-healing strategies

With all of this in mind, here are 10 steps to take to stave off burnout:

  1. Stay a student. Commit to lifelong learning. Educate yourself, formally or informally. Take the time to learn new things.
  2. Be ethical. Doctors face ethical decisions every day. Often these dilemmas are straightforward: What’s in the best interest of the patient? But managed care, profits, insurance and regulation apply pressure that can undermine the best of intentions.
  3. Slow down. The business plan might call for spending 15 minutes with a patient and moving on, but it’s possible to be too efficient. At times, you’ll benefit not only the patient, but yourself, by slowing down, listening and taking a few extra minutes out of your schedule. Doing so can be a surprisingly enriching experience.
  4. Go home at the end of the day. Many physicians work long hours and find it hard to separate their office life from their home life. But to prevent burnout, the best advice for doctors is: At the end of the day, go home — and leave your work at the workplace.
  5. Just say “no. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but it’s also paved with bricks made of the word “yes.” Being open and receptive to new things is a positive way to live, but it’s impossible to say yes to everything. Before answering in the affirmative to a request, ask yourself: Will it enhance my career? Will it lead to balance or imbalance in my life? Will it take away from time with my family and friends?
  6. Accept limitations. At the end of the Clint Eastwood movie Magnum Force, the bad guy drives away as Eastwood’s Dirty Harry looks on. The car explodes and Harry says, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Well, it’s true of physicians as well. You can’t save every patient. You can’t anticipate every possible outcome. Sometimes you can’t even finish the items on your to-do list. Accept it and move on.
  7. Vacation. Take one. Take several. Take days off on a regular basis — so regularly that your staff and patients get used to the concept. While you’re on vacation, turn off your cell phone and don’t check your email.
  8. Find a niche. What aspect of being a physician do you enjoy the most and feel you’re best at? Try to focus on that: Do more of what you enjoy doing.
  9. Develop a support system. Whether it’s a spouse, friend or colleague, everybody needs a person who can listen to them, cut through the clutter and say, “Maybe you need a vacation,” or “You’re working too hard; why don’t you take a day off?”
  10. Be flexible. Adapting to change is tough. Balance isn’t a concrete concept. Stress and busy times are part of any career. But remember Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”? That didn’t mean strongest. It meant most able to adapt to change.

Protect yourself

An extreme version of physician burnout is suicide. Although coming up with hard numbers is difficult, it’s estimated that between 300 and 400 physicians commit suicide every year.

Depression and burnout aren’t necessarily the same thing — but they often overlap. Take steps to avoid burnout and, if you feel yourself slipping over into depression, get help.

© 2017