Screening and diagnosis
Routine screening for symptoms of burnout can reveal subtle clues that a physician is struggling to maintain work-life balance. "Physicians should check in with themselves about how much they're enjoying family time and hobbies, how much they're able to relax during time off, how easily they can list the rewarding aspects of their work, and physical signs of too much stress," said Sylvie Stacy, MD, a board-certified preventive medicine physician and consultant in Bessemer, Ala.
Stacy is the founder of an online community for physicians called Look for Zebras, which aims to help physicians find more fulfillment in their careers, often through the pursuit of less traditional jobs opportunities. She also recommends physicians use this time to identify key personal and professional goals as well as their progress toward achievement.
Unfortunately, it can be challenging to objectively analyze your own emotions and circumstances, experts say. While online assessment tools are available and may assist physicians through this self-evaluation, it frequently takes a third party to help physicians fully identify the gravity of their situation and steer them toward treatment.
Due to the long hours together and shared workspaces, staff members and colleagues have the potential to recognize early on the day-to-day changes in a physician's personality and serve as a sounding board and support system. "One big step in supporting our physician colleagues is being open to asking questions and expressing genuine concern," said Iyer. It's important to keep these conversations low-key and non-confrontational, so the physician has an opportunity to candidly discuss their feelings or simply vent about their day without feeling judged or embarrassed.
Family members can hone in on burnout symptoms quickly also. "It can be hard to see changes in yourself, but your spouse may have noticed that you're smiling less often, less interested in your hobbies, etc.," said Stacy. "And many kids will be brutally honest with you if you ask them." The former was true in Jones' case, where it was his wife who initially recognized the change in his demeanor and supported him in pursuing professional treatment for burnout.
There is a stigma that prevents many physicians from seeking help, but there are an increasing number of avenues available for support and treatment. Many large hospital systems have implemented programs to assist physicians in maintaining work-life balance and managing stress.
Physicians outside of those health systems may benefit from professional counseling or therapy, either in an individual setting or by joining an informal support group like those offered by Iyer. "These support groups […] appeal to physicians of all ages [and] specialties, in various points in their careers," said Iyer. "The groups build a unique level of camaraderie [and help] physicians identify exactly how they are struggling."
For others, burnout can signal it's time to explore additional career options and find a position that more closely aligns with your mental, emotional, and physical needs. "There are a lot of opportunities out there for physicians, with such a broad range of responsibilities, workplace cultures, schedules, topic areas, etc.," said Stacy.
If you choose to stay in your current position, Stacy recommends renegotiating your work schedule and responsibilities with your employer along with finding a counselor or life coach to assist in working through residual burnout concerns. Ultimately, taking action is the only way to break the cycle. "Do not remain silent and attempt to fight this alone," said Jones. "Seeking help is a reflection of strength. It is exactly what you would recommend to a patient."
Steph Weber is a freelance writer hailing from the Midwest. She writes about healthcare, finance, and small business, but finds her passion for the medical field growing in sync with the ever-changing healthcare laws.