What is Burnout?

What is burnout?
This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Dealing With Burnout

What is Burnout? – The Challenge of Long Term Stress

As a definition, burnout refers to long-term stress characterized by three common symptom patterns:

  • Emotional exhaustion – feeling emotionally depleted and frustrated;
  • Cynicism – being cynical and sarcastic about oneself, patients, and other individuals;
  • Decreased personal achievement – questioning “what is the use” and experiencing work as unrewarding

Dealing With Long Term Stress in Healthcare

Any working individual can experience burnout and healthcare professionals are no exception to this rule. A recent study found that approximately 80% of physicians experience at least one symptom of burnout, including exhaustion (38%), cynicism (29%), and low sense of personal achievement (12%). These symptoms of physician burnout vary on a day to day basis, depending on how demanding your job responsibilities are and whether or not you are “recharging your batteries”.

From studying in medical school and training during residency to establishing doctor-patient relationships and dealing with piles of work – patient charts and appointments – stress is likely to catch up with you. The average physician works over 50 hours a week and long workdays can cause you to feel exhausted and emotionally drained. Moreover, they can lead to symptoms of burnout, deteriorated health, high risk of medical errors, and the inability to provide quality patient care.

However, burnout is not just troublesome for you as a physician, but it also affects your patients, staff members, and colleagues. Physicians who are frustrated with the stress of daily practice find it more difficult to establish solid relationships with patients.

Main Causes of Burnout in Healthcare Industry

The six main causes of burnout among healthcare professionals come with the stress related to:

  • developing a medical education;
  • practicing clinical medicine;
  • working a demanding job;
  • lacking control over schedules and time;
  • working for an unskilled or absent supervisor;
  • juggling both personal and professional life;

The Effects of Burnout on Medical Professionals

In an editorial published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, 30-65% of burnout rates are seen across several specialties. The two specialties with the highest percentage of burnout are those that deal with severely ill patients: emergency medicine and primary care.

Burnt-out physicians are more likely to leave medicine than other healthcare professionals. Moreover, 45% of these physicians are female, which may be the reason why women tend to enter generalist occupations such as family medicine or obstetrics/gynecology.

The least burnt-out healthcare professionals are pediatricians, dermatologists, pathologists, and psychiatrists. Dermatologists and ophthalmologists have the highest scores for content at work, while emergency medicine physicians, family physicians, and radiologists have the lowest scores for content at work.

Perhaps the greatest concern is the fact that burnout among primary care physicians has increased within the last few years not only in the United States but in Europe too. According to a study conducted back in 2013, job-related stress accompanied with poor treatment for mental health conditions, may account for above average suicide rates among physicians in the United States. Per year, around 300-400 physicians in the United States die by suicide.

Burnout: The Symptoms

So, what is burnout? Burnout is not defined simply as exhaustion. Experiencing symptoms of burnout can cause you to lose interest not just in work but in almost all other things that you do as well. To get a more broad sense of what burnout can look and feel like, here is a list of different perspectives:

  • Being irritable and losing one’s temper;
  • Having difficulty concentrating;
  • Having difficulty maintaining healthy habits;
  • Showing lack of initiation;
  • Showing lack of interest towards work-related goals, household chores, and other tasks;
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and society;
  • Having a negative attitude;
  • Being frequently bored;
  • Feeling uninspired and unmotivated;
  • Losing one’s personal values and beliefs;
  • Experiencing extreme exhaustion;
  • Experiencing psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches;
  • Having insomnia;
  • Being in denial;

Getting Help

Due to the fact that you may not always be able to identify symptoms of burnout yourself, it helps to turn to friends and family members for support. Every individual is reluctant to hear the truth because like it or not, the truth sometimes brings “bad news” and no one likes bad news. However, your friends and family can offer their opinions and examples as to why they believe you are burnt out.

You may be experiencing symptoms of burnout due to your heavy load of job responsibilities. If this is the case, perhaps you should consider cutting back on work hours or easing your workload. For instance, hiring medical assistants to take care of patients’ medical records and administrative duties can give you more face time with your patients.

The most stressful job occupations are ones that involve a great deal of responsibility and little control over results. Your role as a physician fits within this description. However, job occupations are not the only source of burnout. Sometimes, they may play a small role in a much bigger problem. What is most important is that you pay close attention to what is overwhelming you. If you can find the cause, you can learn how to address burnout.

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