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March 5, 2015
September 23, 2022

It is all too common in the medical profession to sacrifice one's own wellbeing for patients. This often manifests as long hours under taxing and anxious situations which can eventually lead to diminished enthusiasm for life, depression, and, even, suicidal ideation. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that more than 45% of physicians were symptomatic of burnout, but this condition can be avoided with appropriate stress management techniques and fatigue avoidance strategies.

Before a physician is capable of implementing the appropriate strategy for avoiding burnout, they should perform an objective self-evaluation and determine if the following symptoms of professional burnout are evident:

  • Depleted Enthusiasm, Most physicians enter the profession highly enthused about caring for patients, but become disillusioned when they learn about the reality of modern medicine.  While it is natural for this passion to diminish to some degree, many physicians are so overwhelmed by the administrative and patient workload that they grow cynical about their chosen profession. 
  • Social Isolation, It is quite common for overburdened doctors to ignore their friends and family as they devote the majority of time and energy to professional responsibilities.  This can lead to a self-imposed isolation that is symptomatic of burnout and a contributing factor as well.
  • Emotional Volatility, Emotional stability is a highly regarded trait in the medical profession, but the stoic demeanor that most physicians adopt can be disadvantageous if it prevents self-awareness.  Emotions like irritability, sadness and frustration can be red flags for burnout if they become habitual or excessive.
  • Patient Depersonalization, One of the hallmarks of physician burnout is treating patients like items on a conveyor belt.  It is difficult to treat all patients with consistently high levels of compassion and interest, especially in high patient volume settings, but if the majority of cases evoke cynicism or antipathy, it may be wise to take some time off to renew interest in clinical care.
  • Chemical Stimulation, It is fairly common to turn to chemicals like food, energy drinks, coffee or other stimulants (i.e. prescription drugs) to help recharge depleted energy levels, but it can be an important indicator of professional fatigue if used more often than not.
  • Change in Sleep Habits, Burnout can often manifest in altered sleep habits or quality of sleep.  It may be difficult to distinguish between disrupted sleep patterns from long work days and sleep that is organically disturbed, but one of the key symptoms of burnout is waking up without any optimism for the day ahead.
  • Diminished Physical Activity, Changes in daily or weekly exercise routines can signal emotional despondency, but this is easily corrected.  Just a quick 20 minute run multiple times a week is enough to raise endorphin levels and improve the emotional state.

Identifying the early signs of physician burnout is critical for maintaining enthusiasm for practicing medicine.  Once you recognize these early indicators, you can take immediate steps to buoy your emotions and recharge your energy levels including:

  • Schedule time with friends and family
  • Take a vacation or sabbatical
  • Exercise regularly
  • Speak to a mental health professional

Just a few positive activities on a weekly or monthly basis may be enough to head off full exhaustion and extend a medical career by years or decades.

Article written by:

Robert Moghim, M.D.

CEO, Health Carousel Locum Tenens