How To Define And Prevent Physician Burnout

While there is no question that physician burnout is on the rise, different studies report different rates of the phenomenon. These deviations arise due to the different criteria used to determine burnout. Experiencing stress on the job is natural regardless of your occupation, but when does that stress cross into the boundaries of burnout? Where do we draw the line between job stress and physician burnout?

Actual numbers vary depending on the source but it is clear that wearers of white coats experience burnout more than any other occupation in America. This makes sense given the nature of medical practice: physicians are faced with extremely high levels of responsibility yet have relatively little control over the outcomes, which can be devastating. Each day brings new challenges, but at a certain point these challenges are no longer increasing physician engagement, but rather sapping the physician of his or her mental/emotional/physical energy.  

This is the marked difference between stress and burnout. Occupational stress is commonplace among physicians but burnout begins when you are unable to recover and recharge your batteries during your time off work. This kind of physician stress builds up over time and crosses into the realm of physician burnout before you even realize it. It becomes harder and harder to shake off the stress of the day, until you reach a point where you simply can no longer release the negative morale associated with your practice.  

A physician who is experiencing burnout is likely to face symptoms that accelerate a downward spiral. They are emotionally and physically drained to such an extent that they can no longer revitalize themselves in non-working hours. They will likely develop a negative, cynical attitude that makes it more difficult to relate to and empathize with their patients on a personal level, further decreasing engagement and job satisfaction. Their sense of self-identity and personal achievements will diminish and falter. These three symptoms of physician burnout can be summed up as (1) exhaustion (2) detachment from work, and (3) a low sense of accomplishment.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici from

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici from

Physician burnout deserves proper attention because it is dangerous to both the physician and his or her patients, who will likely receive poorer care as a result. Physicians It starts within the sphere of one’s practice, but as burnout increases it begins to insidiously seep into your social life, your sense of self, and your overall quality of life. Burnout also has the ability to build upon itself when negative attitudes related to work begin to foster unprofessional behaviors, such as lying or cheating, which further deteriorates personal and professional satisfaction.   As with many physical illnesses, managing physician burnout is best accomplished at a preventative stage. Occupational stress is inevitable, but burnout is preventable. The earlier a physician recognizes symptoms of burnout, the easier it is to conquer. In response to rising burnout rates, many schools residency programs are implementing programs that focus on stress management and work-life balance. Physicians out of residency should monitor themselves for signs of burnout and establish an effective method for coping with excess stress in order to reduce their risk of becoming overwhelmed and burning out.

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