Physician Burnout Signs, Symptoms May Differ By Gender

March 7, 2012

When does natural career frustration and fatigue for physicians transition into full-fledged burnout?

It’s natural to have a bad day or a bad week as a physician, but what about a bad month or a bad year? When does natural career frustration and fatigue transition into full-fledged burnout? And when is it time to seriously consider making some changes? 

The burnout statistics are alarming. When you come across a fellow physician, it’s likely that if you are not burned out, he is. According to researchers at the University of Rochester Medical School, 60 percent of practicing physicians “report symptoms of burnout,” defined as emotional exhaustion, a lack of connection to patients, and a low sense of accomplishment.

The first step in identifying whether you are suffering from burnout is, of course, recognizing the symptoms and identifying that they reflect burnout, rather than the normal everyday emotions and frustrations you encounter.

In a recent article on KevinMD, a physician writes about his own experience and confusion regarding burnout.

“I was at the height of my career as a neurosurgeon in solo practice, but I was also well on my way to clinical depression,” he writes. “I was angry and couldn’t relax, and I was always irritated. Even a few days off didn’t help because of the mountain of phone calls and paperwork waiting for me upon return to work. I asked myself, is this burnout?

Diagnosing yourself with burnout may be even more complicated now than ever. A 2011 study of Dutch general practitioners published in BMC Public Health, suggests that the symptoms and stages to look out for may vary depending on your gender.

Here’s how.

Burnout in Female Physicians
Dike Drummond, a family physician who provides burnout prevention and treatment to fellow physicians, recently wrote about these “groundbreaking” gender-related study findings in another article appearing on KevinMD.

The first stage and symptom women experience is emotional exhaustion, according to the study. This goes beyond the typical fatigue physicians suffer resulting from a stressful workweek. For instance, physicians remain exhausted even after time off.

The second stage and symptom women experience is depersonalization. Here they begin experiencing cynicism, detachment, irritability, etc., and a lack of connection to patients.

Female physicians quickly move from this stage to the final stage of burnout: doubt.

At this time, they “question whether they are offering quality care and whether what they do really matters at all,” Drummond writes.

Burnout in Male Physicians
The most surprising difference between genders is that men are less likely to experience stage three: doubt. As a result, they retain the belief that they are still a good physician and that what they do matters.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Men who fail to move on to stage three might be more prone to continuing to practice as usual, while experiencing exhausting, cynicism, and perhaps, putting off a bad attitude toward fellow staff members and their patients.

Another difference, according to the study, is that men experience higher depersonalization than women, while women experience higher emotional exhaustion than men.

For tips on dealing with burnout, see our June 2011 article, “Heading off Physician Burnout.”

What do you think? Do the signs and symptoms of burnout differ by physician gender?