Clinician burnout: Warning signs and recovery steps

April 20, 2019 | by Jessica Brewer
Clinician burnout: Warning signs and recovery steps

Clinician burnout is a growing concern in today’s medical community. In the Medscape National Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2018, 43% of respondents identified as burned out. A recent survey conducted by the Royal College of Anaesthetists suggests that some are abandoning patient care in favor of non-clinical career paths.

The effects of burnout go beyond the individual clinician, causing serious consequences for the entire clinical population, as well as patients. “The ‘checked out’ clinician is prone to premature retirement, increased sick time and higher rates of suicide and family unit disruption. We’ve also found that physician burnout often results in poorer patient outcomes. As a community, we can’t afford to let our clinicians fall victim to burnout,” said Mike Murphy, MD, MEDNAX Chief Medical Officer, Anesthesiology & Adult Critical Care Services.

By becoming familiar with the signs of clinical fatigue and burnout, you can keep a pulse on your own mental wellbeing, as well as those around you.

Know the warning signs

  • Exhaustion: Feeling like you can’t go on much longer or are operating in survival mode
  • Disconnect: Emotional withdrawal at work or at home, feeling disconnected from patients and team members
  • Change in attitude: No longer taking pride in work, just going through the motions to get through the day, perceiving every day as a bad day and maybe even having thoughts of leaving the profession

Burnout doesn’t look the same in everyone. Additional warning signs include:

  • Depression
  • Perfectionism
  • Feelings of great responsibility, also known as a superhero complex
  • Micromanagement of situations
  • Working excessive hours
  • Disruptive behavior, such as excessive alcohol or drug use
  • Frequent colds or sickness
  • Stomach pains or ulcers, back pain

Steps for mental wellness

Medical providers are prime candidates for burnout. High expectations, grueling schedules, balance of responsibilities and patient demands all add up to a stressful work environment. Clinicians experiencing burnout symptoms shouldn’t feel ashamed. The first step in recovery is recognition. Whether you are experiencing signs of burnout, or want to be proactive, making a self-care plan is a great way to improve your mental wellbeing and overall job satisfaction.

Take a time out. Breaking away from the demanding lifestyle ingrained in medical or nursing school can be hard for clinicians. Many continue their careers with the same “work hard” mentality without prioritizing time away from the job. Schedule regular breaks and vacations to give you something to look forward to, as well as a much-needed time away to reset from the high demands of your profession.

Create boundaries. Establish work-free zones to allow time to enjoy life outside of work. Email, electronic medical records and smart phones can create a 24-hour work day. Being constantly available isn’t healthy for you, or your personal life, and can lead to mistakes due to overtiredness or lack of attention. Set aside time when you are not scheduled or on-call to step away from your devices and enjoy your free time.

Set goals. Assess your current work and professional circumstances and set goals for the future. An action plan goes a long way towards improving your overall outlook when faced with stressful or difficult circumstances. Recognizing that you are working towards something that you desire, and ultimately achieving this goal, can take away from the monotony of the day. Goals may include:

  • Advancing your career
  • Moving to a new location or clinical setting
  • Increasing work/life balance
  • Gaining a new skill or certification

Focus on your health. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Just as you encourage patients to prioritize a healthy lifestyle – you should too! Regular exercise and/or meditation are proven natural stress relievers. A balanced diet that includes leafy greens and antioxidant rich foods also can improve the way you feel and provide more energy. Try walking down the street to a new bistro for a healthy meal and a little exercise to break up your day.

Pursue a hobby. Find something that brings you joy outside of your work environment. Whether it’s photography, painting or simply spending time outdoors, carving time away from clinical and personal responsibilities will bring increased satisfaction and a much-needed break from constant stressors.  

Assess your situation. If you have taken steps to improve your mental wellbeing, and still feel the strain of burnout, then it may be time to consider your career options and look for something new. Ask yourself which elements of your job cause you the most stress and what circumstances may help alleviate stress, such as:

  • Better work schedule
  • On-call requirements
  • Holiday and vacation coverage
  • Part-time opportunities
  • Location
  • Leadership structure
  • Practice dynamics
  • Clinical and administrative support systems

If you are thinking of a career change, or are just getting started, consider MEDNAX!

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If you feel like your symptoms require more attention, consider seeking counseling or medical treatment. Among those who reported feeing burned out in in Medscape’s 2018 report, 15% admitted to experiencing either clinical or colloquial forms of depression. A mental health professional may be able to provide additional support and insights that can help restore balance in your life.