Burnout is a complex issue and it can stem from any one of the daily challenges thrown at physicians. They are under pressure from insurers and employers to spend less time with patients; they are being held more accountable via ratings and surveys; they work long hours with little work-life balance; and they practice in an increasingly changing industry that offers less autonomy over a practice.
Studies have shown that physicians are more likely to experience burnout than people in other occupations. In a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine by Mayo Clinic, researchers talked with more than 7,000 physicians. They found that nearly half had experienced burnout and more than one-third were unhappy with their work-life balance.
“Doctors tend to be perfectionists, and I think it is a frustrating experience when these things impact their ability to practice,” said Liz Ferron, manager of clinical services for Physician Wellness Services, based in Minneapolis, Minn. “I am finding a lot of doctors who question if they want to continue in healthcare.”
Burnout can induce minor issues like fatigue but it can also bring on problems like depression, alcoholism, and an increase in medical errors.
The good news is that doctors can improve or even stave off burnout. Doing this depends on figuring out why they, in particular, are crashing.
“The first step is recognizing you are burned out,” Ferron said. “It takes someone stepping back and saying, ‘I need to do something about this’. Physicians are smart; if they simply take time to reflect on it, they will figure out what is going on.”
Ferron said physicians are some of the worst offenders when it comes to self-sacrifice for their job. Because they do this, it can lead to anger and resentment.
“Just doing something for themselves goes a long way to extinguish that,” she said.
She tells physicians to take some time, walk the dog, meditate, and work in the garden. They should do whatever they can to have some down time. This will give them room to breathe and clear their head.
She also tells people not to forget the basics – find a spiritual outlet if that works for you, eat a balanced diet, and exercise. Neglecting yourself for the sake of your practice doesn’t help anyone.
Look on the bright side
Author Charles Swindoll once wrote, “The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”
Ferron agrees with this estimation. She talks with physicians about the importance of focusing on the positive part of work and engagement with patients. She also recommends thinking of three things every night before they go to bed that they enjoyed about work that day.
In a 2009 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers reported on a study of 70 primary care physicians who took part in a continuing education course dealing with self-awareness, mindfulness meditation, and other positive reinforcement. Those taking part in the course showed reduced burnout rates, more empathy, and improved moods and emotional stability.
“The nice thing about it is that is it doesn’t take a lot of time like exercising for an hour,” Ferron said. “But people have to make a choice to do it.”