How to Help a Colleague Who’s Struggling with Burnout

February 12, 2018
Avery Hurt

It’s hard to intervene when you see a fellow provider in trouble with burnout. Here’s how to make it a little easier.

If you see a problem one of your colleagues is having with burnout, don't be shy.

“When I do a presentation on burnout, I show a slide of an ostrich with its head in the sand, and the caption, ‘Don’t be this way when you see a colleague struggling,’” says Clifton Knight, MD, senior vice president for education at the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). “Medical culture says, ‘Do not butt in” but we need to realize that we aren’t doing them a favor by ignoring the problem.”

This does not mean, of course, that your efforts to help will be met with gratitude. Quite the opposite in fact, especially if your intervention involves reporting your colleague. “I served on the Indiana State Medical Association Commission on Physician Assistance, and I could predict that the response to being reported would be uniformly anger,” says Knight, “but after treatment, the response is almost always ‘I wish I had gotten help sooner.’”

Knight acknowledges that intervening when you see a fellow physician in trouble is hard, but it’s also, he says, “the right thing to do. It goes against the culture of medicine, but that needs to change. We need to know that it’s ok to care about our colleagues; it’s oK to support them.”

Help for the Helper
Of course, it’s much easier to know that you should intervene than to know the best way to do it. But common sense - and common humanity - are the best guides here. When you see someone struggling, the first step is to reach out and give him or her a chance to talk about it, advises Michael Munger, MD, family physician in Overland Park, Kansas, and current president of the AAFP. Be non-confrontational and supportive, Munger suggests.

He says you should start with something very simple such as, “We’re all under a lot of stress. How are you holding up?” He also warns that it might take several tries before you are able to open up a dialogue.

“If patient care is being jeopardized, or you fear that a colleague may be at risk of suicide, you may have to take more direct action,” says Munger. How direct depends on how urgent you deem the situation to be and on what kind of practice you work in. If you’re in a large group, there is probably a method for confidentially reporting these kinds of problems. If you’re in a small group, you might reach out to family members or close friends of your struggling colleague.

Munger also points out that online mental health resources and resources available through your professional association can be very useful to you. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice from a colleague you know who works in the area of physician health. This is a case where “asking for a friend,” is often the very best thing you can do.

“We absolutely need to look at and address the drivers of the problem, but meanwhile, we have to take care of each other.”