Burnout In the Medical Field: What to Know

A firefighter whose fire alarms all have dead batteries, a security guard who leaves a spare key under the doormat, and a dentist who doesn’t floss every day?

As unlikely as it may seem, a similar phenomenon is common in the medical field. Medical professionals of all sorts succumb to the overwhelming pressures of being in one of the most stressful industries in the world, which can lead to burnout, depression, and in extreme cases suicide.

Burnout is a strong feeling of physical or emotional exhaustion that usually originates from years of stress. It’s a widespread problem in the medical field: a 2015 Mayo Clinic survey found that 54.4% of all physicians reported at least 1 symptom of burnout.

Certain factors create an environment in which medical professionals are more susceptible to burnout than other professions. For example, medical professionals seeking help for mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety run the risk of getting their license revoked.

In fact, a 2017 Mayo Clinic survey found that almost 40% of physicians reported that they would be reluctant to seek formal medical care for treatment of a mental health condition due to licensing concerns.

The Early Signs

The best way to avoid burnout is to catch it early. As you will read, early symptoms of burnout can sometimes appear to be regular abnormalities in everyday life. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other things; the more symptoms you have from the list below, the greater the chances are that you may be headed towards burnout.

Loss of enjoyment: Ever find yourself miserable at work? Not just when you’ve had a rough morning, or when it’s almost the end of the day, but consistently every day? This does not have to be restricted to just work, losing enjoyment in your personal life can also be a sign of burnout.

Insomnia: Being exhausted but not being able to fall asleep can be tortuous, and a sign of burnout. If you regularly find yourself struggling to sleep after a full workday, you may have insomnia.

Increased Illness: Being stressed out and losing sleep is a recipe for disaster on your body. As a medical professional, you know that the immune system responds to the things you do every day, including diet, sleeping habits, stress levels, medication, etc. If you find yourself frequently with sinus infections, pneumonia, bronchitis, meningitis, skin infections, ear infections, or other infections, your immune system may be weak.

Anger: What may begin as an increase in irritability and a lack of patience with others can be an early sign of an anger problem. Frequent outbursts and arguments at home or in the workplace over trivial matters can be a tell-tale sign of a growing problem. If you find yourself easily angered or annoyed by insignificant things, you may want to take a step back and assess yourself for burnout.

Isolation: Curling up to watch The Office after the kids have gone to bed is ok. If you find yourself changing your daily routine to avoid interacting with people, you may have a problem. Isolation is a coping mechanism that can be destructive to you and the ones you care about, it hurts the relationships you’ve spent years building at work or in your personal life. Solitary confinement is known to be one of the worst tortures one can endure, you don’t have to go through it yourself.

Chronic Fatigue: Feeling tired at the end of the day is normal. Feeling tired all day, every day is not normal. Chronic fatigue can be one of the first signs of mounting stress in your life. This includes physical and mental fatigue. Not having enough energy to do things like you used to, such as using the stairs instead of the elevator at work, or reading in the evenings, could be a sign that you are suffering from chronic fatigue.

Preventative Tips

Experiencing one or two of the symptoms above may be a sign of stress, experiencing many of the symptoms above could very well indicate that you are suffering from burnout. If you’re experiencing a few or no symptoms, taking these preventative steps can help alleviate stress and prevent burnout in the long run.

Regular Exercise Routine: As is with most professions, medical professionals live mostly sedentary lives while at work. Having a regular exercise routine is essential for adults of all ages to keep the body functioning properly. Daily exercise is known to relieve stress and make you more focused. It can also help you sleep at night, increases your appetite, and speeds up your metabolism. Studies show that exercise will also strengthen your immune system, and make you live longer; what’s not to like about exercise? Something as simple as taking a 30-minute walk after work is a great start to an exercise routine.

Increase Social Interaction: Seeing patients come and go year after year as a healthcare professional can be difficult. Building strong, healthy relationships with family and friends has been shown to be good for your mental and physical health. Maybe for you, that means taking your family to that Labor Day picnic at your relative’s house this year or maybe volunteering with a friend for that local 5K-fundraiser your church is hosting.

Self-Care: Being in the healthcare field is a serious endeavor, and between taking the kids to sports practice, commuting, working, etc., it can be easy to lose yourself in it all. Self-care is very important and is often put on the backburner for American adults. You deserve to make time for the little things you love, like reading, watching your favorite TV show, and enjoying your hobbies.

I think I’m experiencing Burnout: What do I do?

 Make the call: If you have had suicidal thoughts or have found yourself thinking a lot about death, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 immediately.

 Go to your Doctor or Psychiatrist. If you think you are experiencing burnout, the first thing you need to do is let your doctor know. In the U.S., doctors have the highest rate of suicide of any profession, about double the national average. Having depression or anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s always better to let your doctor know. You know more than anyone else that your condition is severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit. Tell your psychiatrist. Simply verbalizing your feelings to someone can help alleviate stress, and can be the first step in the right direction.

Take time off: At this point, taking time off isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Whether it’s using sick, personal, or vacation days, you need to get some time away from work. Even if you have no paid days you can take off, a conversation with your boss is likely to get you a few unpaid days off. Take them. On your time off, get your mind off work; use the preventative tips above to start healthy, sustainable habits. Talk with your family and doctor to determine the next steps in your professional life.

Whether you are definitely experiencing burnout, or you’re just ready to take preventative steps, remember that’s it’s a serious matter that warrants serious action. Think you have a coworker or friend that is experiencing burnout? Go talk to them, see how they’re doing, share with them what you learned from this blog. Need a new exercise buddy? There’s a great way to kill two birds with one stone!