Doctors facing overcrowded waiting rooms and pressing issues in patient health might be tempted to ignore, or even hide, signs of burnout. But feeling burned out isn’t something medical professionals should overlook – studies show that in addition to mental and physical health risks, doctors who are burned out are also at a higher risk for making medical mistakes or becoming involved in medical malpractice suits. If you’re experiencing burnout at work, the best option is to get help as soon as possible – and recognizing the signs of burnout at work is a good place to start.
How can you know when you’re burned out? The answer will be different for every physician, but whether it is exhaustion, depression, depersonalizing your patients or letting your personal life suffer, the best course of action is early detection.
How can you spot burnout? Here are ten common ways:
1. You’re Stressed – Or Not
According to the American Medical Association, stress can contribute to burnout even when you’re not feeling the crunch. Even for doctors with a high stress threshold, consistently operating in stressful conditions can leave you at least fifteen times more likely to burn out. Their advice? “Don’t ignore the stress, even if you can take it.” Finding yourself in a consistently stressful situation (such as a busy or overcrowded ER) or working more hours than you can handle can make your stress seem less noticeable over time – but it’s no less taxing on your physical and mental health. So even if you’re not feeling overwhelmed, if the area around you is chaotic, it might be time to ease up before you burn out.
2. You’re Depersonalizing Patients
Sometimes it helps to set some distance from your patients, but when someone becomes ‘that heart attack patient’ or a patient with an upper GI bleed becomes ‘the bleeder’, you might have a problem with burnout. For many doctors, one of the first signs of burnout at work is behaving callously or becoming excessively detached from their work, often to the point of blaming or speaking negatively towards their patients. This problem is more common among male doctors, whose stress response when burned out might look something like ‘my patients are such jerks!’ – everyone has difficult patients, but when physicians suddenly become cynical (or go from caring and attentive doctors to sarcastic ones) it’s usually related to burnout.
3. You’re Feeling Drained
Unlike male physicians, female doctors tend to skip the depersonalization stage of burnout at first, and go straight to emotional exhaustion. If you notice yourself feeling emotionally drained or ‘used up’ at work (or when you come home), you could be experiencing burnout. This is typically because doctors – like everyone – have limited emotional and personal resources for handling stress, difficult tasks, or emotional situations. Like stress, emotional exhaustion can still be a problem even if you don’t feel it – and since burnout is such a widespread problem among physicians, feeling drained after a long day in the office can seem normal.
While male and female doctors experience emotional exhaustion at different stages of burnout (men tend to depersonalize first and feel emotionally exhausted later, while women do the opposite) it’s one of the common warning signs of burnout at work – and one you shouldn’t ignore!
4. You’re Using Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
One of the more serious consequences for physician burnout is the increased incidence of substance abuse among burned out doctors. While a glass of wine in the evening is fine on occasion, you should keep an eye on whether or not it becomes a habit – even moderate amounts of alcohol can be one of the warning signs of burnout at work if you find you’re consistently using them to unwind. Although substance abuse is a problem for both male and female doctors, burned out female doctors are twice as likely to turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, and the problem is especially prevalent among surgeons. But even if you aren’t overdoing it, depending on a nightly glass of wine to relax might mean you’re approaching burnout.
5. You Don’t Take Care of Yourself
Skipping your morning run for an extra hour of sleep might make sense if you spend a late night in the ER, but if you’re constantly feeding yourself from vending machines or skipping out on exercise, showers, or sleep, watch out! It might feel like you’re just working hard, but burned out doctors have reduced rates of patient satisfaction, quality of care, and worse patient outcomes. So if you’re finding yourself skipping out on the most basic forms of self care, it could be a big red flag if you’re headed for – or already feeling – burnout.
6. Your Practice is Chaotic
Feeling a lack of control over your work, your surroundings, and your stressors is one of the key signs of burnout at work for physicians, and it’s easy to see why: when things are chaotic, it can be hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel or imagine getting everything done. With enough control over your workload, a busy day can feel motivating or leave you feeling accomplished. However, if you’re constantly being surprised, consistently facing more work than you can handle, or getting swamped with requests as soon as you think your day is done, you could feel like the work will never end – and this makes you an easy target for burnout.
7. You’re Making Mistakes
One of the biggest concerns for physicians facing burnout is the increased likelihood of making mistakes – not only with your patients, but in your personal life as well. Even without fatigue, burned out physicians are more likely to be involved in motor vehicle accidents or near-misses. So if you’re making more mistakes than usual at work, it’s time to start thinking about why! Keeping an eye out for burnout can not only help you to make fewer mistakes in the future, it can also help you be kinder to yourself for the ones you do make. After all, if you’re normally great at your job but start making errors after several busy weeks in the clinic, you’re probably not a bad doctor, just a tired one!
8. You’re Missing Out at Home
Work life balance is important, and if it feels like you’re constantly missing out on important events outside of the office – like dance recitals, anniversaries, or birthday celebrations – it could lead to stress in your personal relationships and contribute to the emotional exhaustion that characterizes physician burnout. According to the American Medical Association’s experts, physicians perform better when they can spend time with their loved ones – and work-life interference is one of the biggest precursors to burnout. So if you’re finding yourself skipping out on your personal life, you might not be doing your patients any favors: when a doctor’s satisfaction with their job goes up, so does the quality of care.
9. You’re Out of Sync with Your Leaders
Doctors working in hospitals or other large healthcare organizations – or even self-employed doctors working under the provincial healthcare authorities – can easily feel burned out if they don’t feel their leader’s values align with theirs or the people who represent them are acting in their best interest. If you’re feeling disgruntled by the leadership in your practice, it can eat away at the motivation and satisfaction you take in your work – leaving you open to burnout. Getting involved in committees and task forces in your organization can help you get in touch with management on issues that are important to you, and potentially help other doctors in your organization as well.
10. You’re Feeling Depressed
Physician burnout and depression can go hand in hand – to the point that some researchers don’t make a distinction between burnout and depression at all. Across all studies, most of the doctors with burnout met some – or all – of the criteria for clinical depression. If you’re feeling blue, exhausted, cynical, or out of touch with friends, family, and things you once enjoyed, this is a big warning sign that you’ve entered the burnout phase – and it’s time to get help!
Burnout isn’t something you should ignore – and learning how to tackle burnout will improve your overall work life balance. While many of the signs of burnout at work can just seem like you’re doing your best to tackle the demands of a busy and important job, the research on burnout suggests that no doctor is immune. Whether you’re an expert at handling a high stress situation or have all the right systems in place to balance your work life with your family time, the practice of medicine can be full of surprises! Keeping an eye on your own signs of burnout, as well as the doctors around you, is crucial for creating a healthy work environment for both you and your patients. So do something nice for yourself today – your patients will thank you!