How to Survive Burnout at Work: Tips for Doctors

Kristen Campbell
January 6, 2021

Think you’re approaching burnout, but don’t know what to do about it? With 40% of Canadian physicians reporting burnout in their day to day practice, feeling overwhelmed can seem like it’s just part of your job – but being emotionally exhausted, cynical, or overworked can lead to big problems in your practice. Although much of the stigma around being the ‘best doctor possible’ involves working around the clock and putting the needs of others before your own, the research around how to treat work burnout suggests being mindful of your own needs is crucial for an effective practice. So what is burnout at work, and what can you do about it?

Most of the research around how to survive burnout at work comes down to three areas – emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and depression. In fact, many researchers on physician burnout argue that there is no difference between burnout and depression at all – with 90% of the physicians who met criteria for burnout also meeting the criteria for clinical depression. Feeling emotionally drained after work, not being able to ‘recharge your batteries’, or being cynical or callous towards your patients are all signs of burnout, and not ones you should ignore. While it’s tempting to keep pushing through, treating burnout can lead to fewer errors, higher quality of care, and better patient outcomes – and there’s no better time to start than right now!

Here are some of the best tips for how to treat work burnout:

1. Take Time Away from the Office

When you’re thinking about how to treat work burnout, this might seem like a given. However, not all burnout is caused by overwork. Sometimes burnout among doctors can look like a lot of difficult conversations, paperwork, or highly stressful patients, and this burnout is possible even when you’re not spending a lot of time at the office.

Whatever the reason for feeling burned out, the first step should be stepping back. Getting out of the clinic – even for an afternoon, evening, or extra coffee break – can give you some much-needed distance from work and your work habits. Doctors who are used to pushing through with no breaks might not notice their own burnout, but once you get out of the rhythm of overwork – even for a short amount of time – you can quickly realize how unhealthy your habits are.

Many doctors feel that taking time for themselves comes second to their responsibility towards their patients. After all, how can you justify an afternoon off – or even a sick day – when you have patients who depend on you for care? Easily – according to the research on physician burnout, burned out doctors are more than twice as likely to have made a medical error in the last three months than their non-burned out peers. Yikes! 

While it might seem like pushing through burnout is the best way to help your patients, it could have the opposite effect – and taking time off (even in small increments) is one proven strategy for how to survive burnout at work.

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2. Create a More Flexible Schedule

Having control over your working environment – and the stressors in it – is another proven way to manage burnout. In the right context, working through a tall stack of paperwork, finishing a busy evening in the ER, or completing a difficult surgery could leave you feeling accomplished and satisfied, but getting another stack of paperwork dumped on you before you can finish the first batch or being unexpectedly called in on your day off can have the opposite effect. The combination of overwork and a perceived loss of control over your circumstances creates a ‘perfect storm’ for physician burnout – leaving you exhausted, unfulfilled, or cranky.

Creating a flexible schedule for yourself doesn’t have to mean working less hours either – simply varying the number of consecutive day shifts, the amount of intense or lengthy shifts you work, or changing the number of days off you have. This is especially true if you yourself have some control over the hours you work and when. 

Doctors who work outside the hospital setting – such as in a physician owned practice or clinic – can consider adjusting their work hours to work a longer or shorter day. This could help you make time for family and friends and accommodate more special occasions. Even if you still work a lot of hours, having some control – and balance – between when these hours are and the time you have off is a good place to start when looking at how to survive burnout at work.

3. Make Time for Passion

Mayo Clinic research on burnout suggests that burnout rates increase the most when doctors are spending less than 10-20% of their work time doing what they are the most passionate about. This could come down to job fit – if you love being in the surgery but you’re spending all your time doing paperwork in your role as department head, you could feel more burned out than if you were doing surgery full time even with less hours. Finding a passionate fit with your work will ultimately have the biggest impact on your motivation and happiness levels, but even making sure to spend at least one half day per week doing what you’re most passionate about can make a big difference in your level of workplace satisfaction. Researchers argue that this amount of time – one half day per week – is both cost effective for organizations and helpful for doctors, and figuring out what your most passionate activity is, be it spending time with patients or training other staff, is crucial for targeting the future direction of your career as well!

4. Maintain Meaningful Relationships

When doctors spend more time with loved ones, they perform better at work – and when they’re forced to miss out on their personal activities, they carry this stress into the office with them. If you’re trying to avoid burnout – or already facing it – spending time with the people you love is crucial to maintaining your state of mind. 

Taking time with loved ones can give you a space to vent and let you have more time being a human, not just a doctor. Traditional views of the diligent, self-sacrificing physician who works nonstop can keep you from getting help for burnout or knowing when enough work is enough. However, friends and family – especially ones outside of the medical field – can often have a gentler, more compassionate approach. When you’ve lost sight of how much you’re working or how burned out you are, the people closest to you can often be the ones to set you back on a steady path: in a field defined by altruism and compassion for others, physicians need people around who can show them compassion and who can refill their emotional energy tank. 

5. Create Simple Systems

Unlike in other professions, physicians often don’t have the option to delegate the parts of their job they don’t enjoy. Documenting, filling out patient forms, looking over test results, and other forms of administrative paperwork are often tasks that simply cannot be done by anyone else. Although it might be impossible to take all of your paperwork off of your plate, there are plenty of strategies you can use to get it done easier or more quickly. Using your EMR system – and finding all the shortcuts – is a good place to start, as well as experimenting with dictation software. Some physicians even book time with patients to help fill out lengthy or arduous forms (such as the ones for insurance companies or workers compensation). 

Even if you don’t use any new strategies for completing your paperwork, choosing when and how to complete it is one simple way to streamline the task. If you always book one hour for paperwork over lunch, the system becomes routine and the work doesn’t build up. Some physicians even prefer to schedule a whole day, afternoon, or evening per week to handle paperwork, an especially good strategy if the paperwork you do requires a lot of decision making. Of course, when it comes to billing and getting paid, always try to use a simple billing software that automates the process but still leaves you in control so your paycheck isn’t a black box. 

Burnout is proven to impair these decision making skills, and since administrative work likely isn’t your most cherished part of your job, simple systems and rewards (such as treating yourself to a coffee before tackling an afternoon you have reserved for paperwork) can be helpful for lowering the stress while you do it. After all, one of the biggest mediating factors into physician burnout is your perceived control over your level of work – and turning a stressful task into a pleasant ritual can help you feel like you’re on top of your game. 

 

No matter what strategy you choose, the most important factor in how to treat burnout at work is not ignoring the problem – even taking small steps to reduce burnout at work can make a big difference on your motivation, level of happiness, and patient outcomes.

 


 

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