Preventing burnout in physicians is important not just for doctors, but also for the healthcare system as a whole – when doctors are burned out, they are not only more likely to leave practice, but also suffer from impaired attention, memory, and executive function that could put their patients at a disadvantage. With as many as 50% of doctors reporting burnout, finding a solution isn’t just a career priority, it’s a necessity. So how can doctors avoid getting burned out? Here are some of the easiest ways:
1. Streamline Tasks in the Clinic
Routine administrative tasks and in-practice chores can be thankless – there will never be an end to patient requisitions, computer software steps, or documentation. With some doctors suggesting they spend two hours on a computer for every hour they spend with their patients, and time pressures ranking as one of the top reasons for physician burnout, in-clinic systems or routines can be useful for minimizing the time you spend at the office without minimizing your impact. Start off by taking an inventory of your average day – from the time it takes to commute to the administrative tasks you check off before leaving the office. How much of your day relates to your medical practice? Are there administrative activities that can be delegated to medical office staff? If your to-do list is unavoidable? Look for ways to make lengthy tasks quicker – for example, having a billing code cheat sheet in your office.
Unless you love the administrative part of your job, taking steps to maximize your time with patients can make your workday feel more satisfying, get you home sooner, and keep your practice running smoothly. Taking the stress away also helps you focus on things that matter, like patient-care or career development.
2. Set Up Systems at Home
One of the reasons for burnout in physicians (across all specializations) is trying to balance the family responsibilities doctors handle at home. While it might seem like burnout starts in the clinic, you might be surprised by how much home stress can affect your performance and happiness overall.
Chores like dishes, laundry, cooking meals, or caring for your children can make a long workday seem doubly overwhelming, especially if your spouse already feels underappreciated due to long hours. Setting up simple daily systems – such as doing laundry on a certain date or making it a habit to load the dishwasher before you go to bed each night – can make thankless chores seem to disappear. Systems can also help you to split chores more equitably between you and your spouse – for example, if you load the dishwasher every night and your spouse unloads it every morning before they leave for work, you share the labor and the dishes don’t pile up.
It might not seem like a big deal, but chore splitting has been found to be almost as important for a happy marriage as fidelity! If you and your spouse are both busy professionals or if you live alone, you might consider getting a cleaning service, meal delivery, or hiring a nanny – if you’re working a lot of overtime, making the most of your time at home is crucial to avoiding burnout, and with the household duties taken care of, you can spend more of your time away from the office unwinding.
3. Make a Flexible Schedule
Making a flexible schedule can help more than just your work-life balance. Research shows that patients are increasingly interested in doctor’s appointments outside of the typical 9-5. This could be beneficial if you were to adjust your hours to work longer one day and thus coming home earlier on other days.. In addition to the extra mornings or evenings at home, making a flexible schedule can help keep you feeling motivated – as you’ll have more time on some workdays, to fit in activities like hobbies or spend time with family and friends.
Being on a flexible schedule doesn’t mean spending all your time in the office, either – if you’re thinking of offering virtual visits or other Telehealth services, scheduling these in to fill your morning and evening time slots can mean working from home even while you’re still on duty. This can help your workday feel shorter and help you balance out life at home.
4. Don’t Stop Learning
You might be surprised to find out that one of the biggest reasons for burnout in physicians is boredom, but it’s true: many physicians, not used to life outside of the challenges of medical school, can end up feeling unstimulated by the routine of daily practice. To tackle burnout in your clinic, try branching out – taking additional certifications or entering degree programs is a great way to keep your mind active and make progress in your career. If your subspecialization is no longer challenging you in the clinic, you could consider taking on an additional interest or more patients in a new area, for example, an OB/GYN moving from reproductive endocrinology to infertility.
Keeping yourself challenged and engaged is crucial to avoiding burnout. While too much passion can end up leaving you overworked, losing the spark you once had for patient care is no better – when you keep yourself on your toes, you increase your chances of finding a new avenue for satisfying engagement with your work.
5. Set Goals
Setting goals for your career progress isn’t just a good idea for your professional future, it’s also a good idea for preventing burnout in the clinic. Some experts suggest physicians who set goals for their career and their practice are more engaged, motivated, and satisfied with their work. While goal setting might seem like more work when you’re already feeling burned out, it could also help connect you with the reasons why you’re working so hard in the first place. If your goal is to be head of surgery at a major hospital, then all the hours you’re logging now might be worth it for a greater purpose. Similarly, if you’re looking to run a successful practice of your own in five or ten years, then it might make sense to stay late.
Goals help you see the end of the tunnel – when you can picture your career goals on the horizon, the mundane seeming daily tasks take on a new meaning as a piece to a bigger puzzle. Even bringing lunch to work or taking the train can feel less of a chore if you know how it’s supporting your ten year goal of starting a family and owning a home. And just like the academic goals you likely set for yourself during medical school, setting goals for your clinical practice and career helps you get through rough patches and stay focused on where you want to go.
6. Have a Support Network
You didn’t get through medical school alone, and your work life is no different – just like any other profession, doctors working busy jobs and long hours need to have the right support around from friends, family, or significant others to help them cope when things get stressful. Even if you’ve been in practice for decades, the nature of medicine is that it can keep you on your toes! When staff changes, when there’s too many administrative burdens, or when you have too many patients to handle, make sure you have people around you can talk to about your concerns, both at home and in the office. The last thing you need when you’re feeling overwhelmed is to be alone. Studies show that having a peer support group is an easy, low-cost way to improve burnout and morale in the workplace.
It’s a great idea to try to keep your home life as relaxing and satisfying as possible when you’re feeling burned out, but if you’re not talking to your spouse, friends, or family about how you’re feeling, then this stress can come out in the form of unhealthy coping mechanisms that can negatively impact your personal relationships. So while it might seem polite not to burden your support network with your own stresses in the office, giving yourself a healthy and appropriate time to vent could be good for everyone involved.
7. Make a Difference
Like setting goals, one of the most satisfying ways to prevent professional burnout is to focus your clinical practice on shaping the medical industry, patient habits, or the global population as a whole. This doesn’t need to just be in your practice – whether you find opportunities to get outside of your clinic and help the medical community as a whole, join academic research committees or task forces, or even just get involved in charitable causes as a volunteer, situating your work into the broader network of the global healthcare industry can battle burnout by adding more meaning to your work while also advancing your professional development. For example, an oncologist feeling burned out by the demands of their practice might get involved on the board of a cancer research charity.
Physicians leadership, skills, and level of expertise are needed in all aspects of the Canadian community and economy, and your time and effort – whether paid or volunteered – is likely to be appreciated.
Even if you don’t have a lot of time to offer, getting outside of your clinic can make you look at the work you do in a new way, help to make your career as a physician feel more impactful as a whole, and put the spark back in your passion for clinical practice.
While almost every profession faces burnout in some way – long hours and stressful working conditions can make burnout in physicians rather risky. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re feeling and make adjustments to make sure the way you’re working is working for you – your patients, employer, and colleagues will all thank you!