Physician Burnout – The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

by Katie Sawyer, 9 minutes read
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Physician Burnout – The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

According to information from the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of applications for medical school fell by nearly 14,000 for the first time in over ten years. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has predicted that there will be a shortage of around 90,000 physicians by 2025, while the number of patients that require care will double by 2040. The changes that have been forecast for the health industry is already taking its toll as, an increasing number of physicians show symptoms of burnout.

Physician burnout has become widespread and is a significant problem that it’s been called a public health crisis earlier this year. A survey showed that 20% of doctors planned to reduce their work time in the next year, with 1 in 50 planning to leave the profession within two years. Research has also found that 78% of physicians stated that they experienced at least one symptom of physician burnout in the past year. These doctors are at a higher risk of:

  • Making mistakes with patients, paperwork and other tasks.
  • Feeling depressed or suicidal.
  • Abusing drugs and alcohol.

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Signs and symptoms of physician burnout

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

The common signs of physician burnout sometimes overlap, which makes it difficult for doctors to receive proper care. Multiple symptoms of burnout can cause doctors to give up on their careers in search of a job that will allow them to have a better work-life balance.

The following are symptoms of physician burnout:

1. Physical exhaustion

Physical and emotional exhaustion are the two most common symptoms of physician burnout. It’s easy to recognize if you’re physically exhausted. Signs of physical exhaustion include:

  • Eyes starting to droop.
  • Getting headaches.
  • Inability to focus.

However, as a physician, you may have been trained to ignore these signals and continue to work through them.

Doctors work long shifts and sometimes do not have enough time in the day to take care of their physical needs, like getting a full eight hours sleep. A 2012 study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that almost half of doctors work more than 60 hours per week.

When you’re able to take time off work, you may only have a few hours to run errands and carry out personal tasks before trying to get a good night’s sleep. As well as getting rest, you also need good nutrition and regular exercise to feel your best. Lack of time can lead to choices that may not be beneficial to your health, for example going to a fast food drive-thru, instead of grocery shopping for healthy meals.

If you are unable to take care of yourself physically in your time off, you will begin to experience physician burnout. Physical exhaustion can be devastating to both work and home life. You need to make your physical needs a priority in order to have a long career as a physician.

2. Emotional exhaustion

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

Physician burnout through emotional exhaustion shows itself when unexpected conflict arises and requires a great deal of mental energy. If you are experiencing emotional exhaustion you may find it difficult to invest in relationships inside and outside of work. With this symptom, you may start to become short with patients or have frequent outbursts of anger.

Emotional exhaustion has a “snowball effect.” This is because the more you ignore your relationships, the more energy you’ll need to fix them at a later date. If you find yourself putting off conversations with loved ones and increasingly canceling fun or social events, you may be experiencing emotional exhaustion. Spending time with your loved ones and maintaining healthy relationships will help you recharge so you can be at your best.

The healthcare industry has its own unique stresses. It can be difficult to try to manage doctor-patient relationships. Additionally, you have to deal with patients and families who are experiencing different levels of crisis. You may have to deliver terrible news or you may struggle with patients who are refusing to follow your medical advice. Being a physician is emotionally taxing. Manage the emotional exhaustion symptom of physician burnout by making time for things that you enjoy so you can cope better with the challenging aspects of your work.

3. Depersonalization

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

Depersonalization is when there is a general cynicism towards your work, your patients and your coworkers. If you are constantly complaining about people around you and are unable to find any positives in your workday, you may be experiencing physician burnout.

With this symptom, you may feel that it’s difficult to be compassionate towards your patients and your coworkers. This symptom is often accompanied by emotional exhaustion. To tackle depersonalization, ensure that you’re doing things that you love during your time off work, so that you can put the demands of the job into perspective.

4. Lost sense of purpose

When you are experiencing physician burnout, you may forget why you wanted to enter this profession in the first place. You may feel unfulfilled with your work and start to question why you decided to follow this career path.

It can be difficult to remember why all the stress and exhaustion is worth it. Being a doctor can be a thankless job, as patients sometimes do not cooperate or bring lawsuits against you and your practice. It can be easy to lose sight of the things that make being a doctor a rewarding career. If you do not take the time to refocus and remind yourself why you started in this profession, it is likely that you will experience a lost sense of purpose.

5. Self-doubt

Some physicians who experience burnout may feel that they’re unworthy or unqualified for the position that they’re in. If you are feeling self-doubt, you may lose confidence in yourself as a healthcare professional. This could lead to you being fearful that you’re going to make mistakes.

Physician burnout can make you believe that you’re not truly qualified to be in this position. You may see your peers getting promoted and feel frustrated that you are not as competent as they are. It’s important to remind yourself that self-doubt is a symptom of physician burnout and to be on the lookout for ways to deal with the issue.

How to recover from physician burnout

After you’ve recognized that you’re experiencing the symptoms of physician burnout, it’s important to take action to safeguard your health and also the wellbeing of your patients.

You have been trained to put your patient first because your job is to improve their health and help them recover. This is an important aspect of your job that cannot be ignored. However, you need to be aware that prioritizing your health will also benefit your patients. For example, when you make time for a lunch break, you should tell yourself that this is part of improving your wellbeing. Try to switch your focus from your patients to yourself during your time off, to help prevent physician burnout.

  • Make time for important relationships

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

Spending time with friends or loved ones can benefit people experiencing physician burnout. Loved ones can help to remind you of all of the work that you have put into your career. They can also remind you of your accomplishments and the positive impact that you are having. An outside perspective could help you see your career as a physician from a more positive angle.

Investing time and effort into significant relationships will also help to reduce symptoms of emotional exhaustion. Strengthening healthy relationships could help you to feel more empathetic towards your patients. If you feel like you have a stable and healthy home life, it will be easier to go to work with a good attitude, because you are loved and supported.

Enjoy life outside of work

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

The training to become a healthcare professional may have ignored the importance of work-life balance. You spend the majority of your waking day at work, which could mean ignoring your own needs. Therefore, it’s recommended, you try to switch off when you leave work as much as possible. Thinking about work or doing work tasks at home helps to increase physician burnout.

Making time to wind down to do things that you enjoy is essential to preventing physician burnout. Catch up on your favorite TV shows or go to see a movie with a friend. You could even go to your local coffee shop to find out if they have regular events, like a book club.

  • Recognize when you are burnt out

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

It is difficult to tackle physician burnout if you do not even realize that you are burnt out. Take time to reflect on your work life at specified periods. Ask yourself important questions like:

  • Are you making a lot of mistakes?
  • Are the mistakes common or small?
  • Are you continually just trying to get through the day so you can get back home and rest?
  • Is your enthusiasm for your work fading?

You can also ask the people who you are close to you whether they notice that you are showing any signs and symptoms of physician burnout. If you start to see the signs, consider how you can lighten your load during work and during your time off.

Answering the following questions will help you to tackle physician burnout:

  • Are there commitments that you can cut back on?

  • Are there productivity hacks that you can use to save you time and energy?

  • Can you ask your seniors to rearrange your shifts, even temporarily to help you recharge your batteries?

  • Take inspiration from Stanford University

Stanford University started an experimental service to help lighten the load of doctors who are at risk of physician burnout. This service allows doctors to “bank” points that they earn through their time at work. These points are for tasks like, covering shifts on short notice and attending joining committees. Doctors can use points to pay for things, such as home cleaning or meal delivery services.

This service helped doctors spend more time recovering during their time off work and less time cleaning or running errands. Doctors who took part in this experiment showed an increase in willingness to help their colleagues cover shifts and increased productivity. Doctors were…:

  • Apply for more grants.
  • Twice as likely to cover shifts.
  • Showed an increase in positivity and kindness towards their patients and coworkers.

Some doctors used the extra time to focus on their physical and emotional wellness, helping to prevent symptoms of physician burnout.

This employee incentive program may seem to be costly, however, the results of the experiment found that the investment was worth the return. Doctors who took part in this program appeared to be happier and more productive.

Physician Burnout - The Signs and Symptoms You Need to Look Out For

Providing perks to doctors is one way to help reduce physician burnout. However, the most effective way to ensure that physicians who work in your practice or hospital maintain a good work-life balance is prioritizing fair scheduling.

Due to the nature of the medical profession, it can be difficult to schedule doctors for shifts that will enable them to have a full life outside of work. However, striving to create fair shifts should be an objective for all health professional leaders.

If you are a healthcare practice owner or a manager responsible for scheduling physicians, consider using Deputy to schedule your staff’s shifts.

Click below to schedule a free trial of Deputy so you can see it in action for yourself and get a first-hand idea of how it will benefit your healthcare practice.