Are Clinicians Burning Out over Personal Issues?

January 16, 2018

Personal problems could be contributing to physicians burning out at work. Identify your real problems, then find the solution.

Physicians have at least as high a rate of suicide and depression as the general population, if not higher, some studies say. At least some of that is no doubt due to the stresses of the job but according to research by Pamela Wible, MD, an expert in physician depression and suicide, the reasons doctors suffer from depression are pretty much the same reasons everyone else does: marital problems, financial worries, childhood traumas, and social isolation. Burnout is undoubtedly a serious and pervasive problem but so is depression. It’s easy to blame burnout for your depression or feelings of dissatisfaction, but could your personal problems be the root of the trouble?

Work or Home?

“One thing that gets lost in the burnout research is when it’s coming from the other direction,” says Michael Myers, professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY.  “Sometimes it is not the work at all, but a ton of stuff going on at home - problems with kids, an ill parent, the loss of a parent.” If you had a fight with your partner before leaving for work, or you’re worried about a parent who is showing signs of cognitive decline, you’re going to have far less patience with a clunky EHR system or an overbooked schedule. The solution, of course, is to take time to deal with the personal problems that may be contributing factors to your work issues.

For physicians, however, that’s easier said than done. Taking time to deal with personal and family problems can seem self-indulgent. You may feel like you’re abandoning your patients if you take time to address your own problems, much less take time for self-care. “Doctors are driven to be of service,” says Daniel Friedland, MD, a consultant based in San Diego, Calif. “And this makes it hard to take care of yourself when you need it.”

Dr. Myers sees this problem often in the physicians he cares for in his practice. “They complain that medical work is so demanding, they don’t have time to process their personal problems. For example, they confide that they are compassionate with a dying patient, but remiss with their own parents,” he says. When Myers and his patients discuss taking time off to cope with family crises, they ask him if it's OK. “Yes, it is OK. You are allowed this.”

Whether it’s a dying parent, a child with problems in school, or a marriage in crisis, you must take the time to deal with your personal problems, otherwise your practice, and ultimately your patients, will suffer. If your burnout is caused or exacerbated by trouble at home, taking the time and energy to address those problems could save your career, and maybe even your life. In the end, it will make you a better doctor, too.