Doctor Burnout Is a Serious Problem

A new study says that 45 percent of doctors experience burnout. Is your doctor part of that statistic?


Doctor image via Shutterstock

Being a doctor is demanding and difficult, but if it weren’t, then everybody would be one. Watch five minutes of any doctor show on television and you can see the stress, whether it is a fictional drama or a reality-based, fly-on-the-wall hospital show. Our doctor friends tell us that their work and personal lives match up more to Scrubs than Grey’s Anatomy anyway (you mean every hospital doesn’t have a McSteamy prancing around half naked all day?). So if hardy comedy and trysts in supply closets aren’t a real part of doctor’s lives, what can they do to de-stress?

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine surveyed 7,288 physicians, and nearly half, 46 percent, reported at least one symptom of burnout. Specialties that were most at-risk were family medicine, general internal medicine, and emergency medicine.

Dr. Paul Griner, a retired senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School, has been in medicine for almost 60 years. He spent his career as a hematologist and internist, and he is concerned about doctor burnout and how it affects patients. Griner says that preventing burnout needs to start early, and teachers must give medical students and residents the tools to cope with and reduce the stresses that can cause burnout. Because, he says, burnout can cause misdiagnoses. “This is not the first survey that’s found a heightened level of burnout among physicians. We know it’s a problem,” Griner says. “Doctors need to be in tune with their patients, asking, listening and connecting the dots. They can’t do that effectively if they’re burned out.”

Griner originally created these tips for doctors to prevent burnout, but we found that they can apply to any profession:

• First, take care of yourself. Eat well, get adequate rest, and exercise regularly. Those are things doctors tell patients all the time but they must follow the advice themselves. Taking care of yourself physically is fundamental for coping with stress and the negative emotions, such as frustration and anger, that can come with working in any field.

• Take time to nurture relationships. Having meaningful relationships with colleagues and co-workers can make your work more gratifying. Take some time, even just a few minutes a day to get to know them. They can provide a sounding board, a sympathetic ear, or have ideas for solving problems. And you can do the same for them. Devote more time to the rewarding aspects of your profession—for doctors, it is things like sharing patient stories and humorous anecdotes—and less time on frustrations.

• Actively listen to your patients (or co-workers and clients) and pay attention to what’s going on in their lives. It will not only help you give better care and/or performance at work, you’ll find it makes your work more interesting and satisfying.

• Do what’s necessary to achieve a work-life balance. If you are not spending enough time with your loved ones, having fun outside of work, or enjoying interpersonal relationships, you are at a greater risk for burnout. Take care of yourself emotionally. If necessary, identify a colleague who seems to have achieved this balance and spend some time with him or her.

How do you prevent burnout in your job? Tell us in the comments.