A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine last October shows that nearly 46 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout, and physicians are significantly likelier to have symptoms of burnout compared to other working U.S. adults.
Why are these numbers so high? And what can physicians do about it?
Recognizing the signs of burnout
Dr. Nidal Moukaddam, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, says there are three main signs of burnout that all physicians should keep in mind:
- Depersonalization and detachment
- Emotional exhaustion
- Feeling that your job and life aren’t gratifying
The medical field is high stress, but Moukaddam focuses on the transition from student to intern. “As students, they’re more sheltered and have a lot of guidance,” she says, “But with the white coat on—that’s it—you have to make decisions.”
Moukaddam says that some of the primary factors that lead to burnout include:
- Sleep deprivation: Although interns and physicians alike tend to have extremely busy schedules, it’s important to get as much sleep as possible. Research shows that sleep deprivation can cause physicians to make mistakes. Plus, it’s unhealthy for the mind and body.
- Social isolation: Physicians and trainees have such little free time that it may seem impossible to maintain a social life, but feeling isolated can lead to depression and burnout.
- Emotional issues: Physicians-in-training may feel doubt that they’ve chosen the right path.
- Financial issues: Physicians-in-training may feel stressed and frustrated due to debt.
Moukaddam says interns’ challenge—and the challenge of every physician—is to be aware of their obstacles and to prepare for them as best as possible.
Coping with burnout
The first step to coping with burnout, according to Moukaddam, is recognizing the signs. She says maintaining a healthy lifestyle—getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating well—helps.
She also focuses on the importance of a social life, even for young physicians-in-training who have moved to a new city. “You might have two hours off on a weekend, but the career-life balance is important,” she says, “It’s achievable if you put your mind to it.”
She says that for those who have significant others, it’s important to make time to talk with them and show that you’re still extremely invested in your relationship.
“When you decrease isolation, when you no longer feel alone—you improve,” she says. She advises seeking social and professional support. If you’ve met one or more symptoms of burnout, you may want to consider speaking to a professional therapist.
Moukaddam says, “Occasionally, take time to reflect that this is a more arduous training process and career, but you’ve made a choice to make a difference on a daily basis.”
Whether you’re in training or a longtime physician, what ways have you found effective to prevent and cope with burnout?
– By Jordan Magaziner