Published: June 14, 2019 | Updated: June 20, 2019
Ask any physician and they’ve heard of physician burnout or even experienced it themselves.
In a 2019 Medscape survey, 44 percent of physicians said they’ve experienced burnout. In specific fields of practice, the rates are even higher: urologists suffer from a 54 percent burnout rate, neurologists 53 percent, and physical medicine and rehabilitation practitioners 52 percent. Female physicians experience burnout more than male physicians (50 percent vs. 39 percent).
The Mayo Clinic has reached similar conclusions in their own studies on physician burnout. In 2018, 45 percent of respondents “experienced at least one major symptom of burnout.” However, the 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians Practice Patterns and Perspectives discovered a whopping 78 percent of physicians experienced burnout.
There are many reasons physicians experience burnout. Medscape’s survey pointed to bureaucratic tasks, long work hours, computerization of practice, lack of respect from colleagues, inadequate pay, and lack of autonomy as the top six. A 2018 study published in the Texas Heart Hospital Journal echoed these findings, adding to the list feelings of being overly regulated and stripped of power, being shackled to electronic health records, and not having enough time with their patients. On top of that, physicians deal with painful, heartbreaking scenarios where patients die and they must tell their loved ones. It’s all a recipe for burnout.
Increased discussion around this important subject is no doubt leading to more initiatives to help our overworked, overburdened doctors. As we pointed out in our article about the brutality of med school, schools such as the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and St. George’s University are implementing mental health programs to assist their med students. Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit created a physician well-being task force and advisory committee with initiatives that include lectures, wellness rounds, and peer-mentor programs.
While institutions should support their staff and pay attention to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, there are still ways medical professionals can reduce their chances of burning out. Here are just four.
1. Seek programs and peer support
As mentioned above, many hospitals are now implementing programs to help medical professionals with their mental health. For medical professionals that work at a hospital, Medscape suggests finding out whether their employer offers any stress management, mental health, group support, or peer-mentor programs. If no such programs exist, medical professionals can search the Federation of State Physician Health Programs website for health programs in their area.
In addition, Medscape compiled a helpful list of programs available to medical professionals across specialties; the American Medical Association offers tools to combat burnout and “reignite purpose”; and American Academy of Family Physicians offers a helpful list of resources on locating mentors.
2. Seek work-life balance
This is easier said than done, as doctors are overworked and pulled in many directions. However, the American Academy of Family Physicians offers helpful tips on achieving work-life balance, including creating a life calendar separate from your work, scheduling intentional date nights, creating yearly and weekly bucket lists, and creating a work-life ritual.
According to Dike Drummond, M.D. in the American Academy of Family Physicians, work-life rituals set a “clean, solid functioning boundary between work and home.” Drummond uses Mr. Rogers as a perfect example. The beloved children’s show host had a ritual of taking off his jacket, zipping up his sweater, changing his shoes, and singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” in that order, every single day. He suggests medical professionals adopt a similar routine. Come home with “an intention to let go of work.” Then release a breath and take “an action.” This action could be something along the lines of changing clothes, walking the dog, making dinner, and so forth. In a country where citizens are overworked, doing this can be challenging, but it’s vital for mental and physical health.
3. Eat well and exercise
Again, this isn’t always simple, especially for doctors, who have very hectic schedules that can prevent them from eating healthy or getting some time in at the gym. In fact, 35 percent of medical professionals are obese, according to a 2014 study published in American Journal of Preventative Medicine. This, in part, is caused by long work hours, being sedentary, and having limited access to healthy foods at work.
We all know that eating well and exercising reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, which can help minimize the likelihood of burnout. Hopefully hospitals and the medical care industry as a whole will continue moving forward in enabling medical professionals to eat well and find time to exercise.
4. Practice mindfulness
There are many apps on the market catering to mindfulness and meditation, such as Headspace, Calm, Buddhify, and Insight Timer. Studies suggest these are helping reduce stress.
More in-depth mindfulness programs catered to medical professionals also prove to be very effective. The Annals of Family Medicine published results of a multi-day mindfulness training exercise where all participants experienced a decrease in emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, depression, anxiety, and stress.
For medical professionals unable to attend a mindfulness workshop, the book Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity might be a good start. Claimed to be the first book of its kind, Ronald Epstein, M.D. writes of ways medical professionals and their patients can “approach medical decisions mindfully and collaborate to achieve the best level of care for everyone.”
Until the medical industry fully understands and supports the mental and physical needs of medical professionals, we will continue to see burnout. Please share this article so we can get physicians the help they need and move toward ending this problem.