No one said being a physician was an easy job, but that doesn’t mean you have to tough it out on your own if you’re struggling.
Physicians should be on the lookout for symptoms of burnout such as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a reduced sense of accomplishment or loss of meaning in their work.
These signs need to be taken seriously, because burnout can lead to the erosion of professional behavior at work and relationship difficulties at home. Burnout is also associated with decreased empathy and compassion and, potentially, worse patient outcomes.
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, a psychiatrist with the UNC School of Medicine, leads the Taking Care of Our Own initiative at UNC to help treat burnout among providers. The program offers resident education, confidential support, advice and an appropriate professional referral for mental or physical help, if needed.
Dr. Meltzer-Brody offers these tips for providers concerned about burnout.
1. Engage in regular exercise and other restorative activities.
Physicians already know this, but it’s good to take your own advice: Physical exercise has a large evidence base for decreasing stress and improving emotional well-being. It’s critical to find time for regular exercise and make it a priority. Identifying an exercise partner to help you stick with your self-care can be a great way to make exercise more fun. Some people find yoga, mindfulness-based stress reduction, massage therapy or acupuncture to be helpful in stress management.
2. Spend time with friends and family.
When doctors start to feel burned out, they often become exhausted and begin to withdraw from others. This can lead to a vicious cycle of feeling socially isolated and withdrawing from those closest to you who often want to help. Look for ways to connect with family and friends regularly. Schedule time with others so connecting is not left up to chance.
3. Identify the things you can and can’t control at work.
The list of frustrations in the health care industry is quite long. Try to systematically and thoughtfully determine the things on your list that you can control and the things that are out of your hands. If possible, don’t invest your time and energy in the things you can’t control, because doing so leads to feelings of helplessness and psychological impotence.
4. Monitor your inner emotional energy barometer, and know when you’re running on empty.
We all have days when we feel fatigued and lack energy, concentration or motivation. It’s important to keep tabs on your personal barometer and assess how you’re feeling. Try to pick a regular time each week to check in with yourself. Use a scale from 1 to 10 (1 = no energy and 10 = high energy). If you notice you’re feeling consistently down and exhausted, this is a signal that you need to refuel. Try to take a few days off or increase participation in restorative activities.
5. Look for warning signs of burnout, and get professional help when needed.
Doctors don’t like to admit when they’re having difficulty. Asking for psychological help is stigmatized. However, ignoring warning signs of burnout leads to much worse outcomes including depression, substance abuse and dependence, and impaired relationships. Take note if you’re drinking more alcohol than usual or using it as a way to cope. Pay attention if you begin to feel increasingly irritable and are having more interpersonal conflict at work or home. Increased mood changes, tearfulness and changes in appetite or sleep are all warning signs of burnout. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Learn more about the Taking Care of Our Own Program.