Physician burnout is not an isolated phenomenon. According to a 2015 Mayo Clinic study, nearly 55 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, or a sense of decreased personal accomplishment.
By 2017, a MDVIP survey found that 68 percent of physicians say that work stress is negatively affecting their lives with as many as 41 percent having contemplated leaving the field entirely. Not only do these intense feelings potentially lead to lower job satisfaction and increased medical errors, they can also strain personal and professional relationships as well.
Here's how physicians and those close to them can identify burnout before it takes its toll.
Basis of burnout
In addition to the long hours and high-stress environment, burnout may further take hold because physicians feel isolated and expected to singlehandedly and successfully solve all presenting problems. "Physicians are taught to power through adversity and never ask for help, which makes us more prone to suffering in silence," said Aparna Iyer, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Frisco, Texas, who facilitates individual counseling sessions and group support for physicians coping with burnout.
Instead of being able to focus on the wellbeing of their patients and connect on a meaningful level — which is why many went into medicine in the first place — physicians are constantly strapped for time due to increasing administrative tasks and large patient volumes. Many physicians are unprepared to tackle such stressors which leave them with unfulfilling or rushed patient interactions and less downtime overall.
"The medical field has become increasingly demanding of physicians […] and these demands are often not consistent with better patient care," said Iyer. "We are also never taught to balance work responsibilities with life responsibilities [and] physicians seem to […] struggle to find the time or willingness to engage in self-care."
Signs and symptoms
Self-identifying the signs and symptoms of burnout poses a significant challenge, particularly for physicians already overwhelmed and grappling with feelings of exhaustion or discontentment. While some may have a single cataclysmic event that prompts them to seek treatment, most will experience a slow process of emotional, psychological, and physical degradation that can take months or years to fully materialize.
For Shawn C. Jones, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist in Paducah, Ky., and author and consultant on physician and medical school student burnout, his experience followed the latter path. "My burnout experience was more like that of a very slow leak punctuated by intermittent acute episodes," he said. "There was no single seminal event that sent me over the edge. It was an accumulation of detritus that had been collected over a long time."
By keeping a close eye on the emergence of any red-flag behaviors, physicians may be able to prevent such a long downward spiral. For example, there is often an increased propensity for "checking out" — as was the case with Jones — where the physician experiences a generalized numbness toward life and mentally and emotionally disconnects, engaging less with family and friends and well as with staff and patients.
The signs don't stop there though. "The everyday picture of burnout can look like a […] decreased connection to work, decreased quality of patient care, irritability, anger, depression, lack of compassion or empathy, and even suicidal thoughts," said Iyer. Others may turn to addictive behaviors such as drinking, drugs, and gambling or become involved in extramarital affairs in an attempt to cope. Changes in appearance, weight gain or loss, insomnia, and headaches are all signs that the stress may be becoming unmanageable.