Chapter 3:
Symptoms of Physician Burnout

4-minute read

Physician burnout creeps up gradually rather than striking suddenly. In fact, many doctors and residents, accustomed to pushing through, are unaware of its presence until they hit a “breaking point” or find themselves suddenly struggling to function. 

However, by familiarizing yourself with physician burnout symptoms—both internal and external—you can become more attuned to the warning signs and take preventative measures to avoid long-term consequences to your wellbeing. 

In chapter 3 of the Physician’s Guide to Tackling Burnout, we explore 10 of the most common signs of physician burnout. Here is a preview of 3 of the physician burnout symptoms we’ll cover:

1. Depersonalizing Patients

Professional distance is necessary, however, for many doctors, one of the first signs of burnout is feeling unnaturally detached from patients. Physicians experiencing depersonalization may become less empathetic, less patient and more inclined to see patients as “cases” rather than individuals. Cynicism, negativity and sarcasm may even creep in, whether expressed internally or externally. Physicians are so busy that this shift in attitude can be surprisingly difficult to notice. What may help is thinking back to your earlier years in medicine. If there is a marked difference between the way you once cared for and connected with patients and your current approach, burnout is a likely culprit.

“The biggest red flag for me was becoming jaded about my work. I’ve always enjoyed taking care of patients, and losing that joy and feeling of purpose was not me at all.”

Dr. Nour Khatib, Emergency Medicine

2. Feeling Drained

One of the most common symptoms of burnout in physicians is emotional exhaustion, which can present in a variety of ways. You may find yourself constantly lacking energy even after adequate rest, turning down social invitations even when you’re available or just generally feeling like you’re pushing through each day. Professionally, you may find it harder to connect with patients, have difficulty concentrating on the job or feel less satisfied by work you once enjoyed. As physician fatigue and burnout progresses, it’s not uncommon to feel like your tank is getting emptier and emptier or that you’re not sure how much longer you can sustain your current pace.

3. Deprioritizing Self-Care

Due to the demanding nature of medicine, physicians may postpone or neglect activities that promote their own physical and mental wellbeing as they put patients first. This can include skipping meals, sacrificing sleep, foregoing the gym or abandoning personal hobbies and interests. It’s an automatic and well-intentioned response to borrow time from the personal priorities column to ensure patients are cared for. However, physicians can’t perpetually sacrifice their own health for the job without eventual consequences. Recognizing when self-care is taking a too-frequent backseat is crucial as it highlights the need to reassess priorities and make time for activities that promote balance.  

“Sometimes I think burnout was a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to wake up and really look at how I live my life.”

Dr. Nadia Alam, Family Physician, Anesthetist and Past OMA President

Download the full version of the Physician’s Guide to Tackling Burnout where we cover 7 additional signs and symptoms of physician burnout along with strategies for improving your wellbeing.

Chapter 4: Preventing Physician Burnout Before it Starts