Physician burnout: Reach out for help

Physicians may not know when to reach out for help

Physicians care for their patients – working long hours and extra shifts, managing all the usual hassles day after day, caring for sick and sometimes dying patients – generally without complaints. It is easy for them to ignore the effects of unmanaged stress in their work life. This happened to me when I practiced in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I learned how to carry on despite the constant stress, and it led to burnout. Early in my training, as an intern and resident, I was taught not to complain or to show signs of weakness.

With this pandemic still unfolding, and the work not yet done, there is currently an astronomically high rate of physician burnout. It is up to 47% among surveyed doctors. I am pleading with practicing physicians to check-in with themselves and assess whether they have any of these warning signs of burnout.

Physician Burnout: Warning Signs

Warning signs for physician burnout: 

  • Are you irritable or angry? How about lacking patience for things that never used to bother you? Are you angry and irritated more often than usual?
  • Do you feel alone or want to be alone? Are you isolating yourself from others? You may feel like you don’t want to talk or socialize with the other doctors and nurses around you. Or, you may feel detached from your co-workers, even insensitive to their needs?
  • Are you questioning whether anyone cares, including your manager or medical director? Have you talked with the people you are close to about your feelings?

    burned out physician

    burntout physician wondering why

  • Are you depressed, lonely, or unusually sad? If you feel like your bad days outnumber your good days, you have a problem. Do you have any good days left at all?
  • Do you never seem to feel rested? Are you tired when you start each day? Have you noticed that you are struggling to get to sleep or oversleeping? Shiftwork really takes a toll on us, and commonly gives us insufficient recovery time.
  • Do you dread going to work? If you feel like you are running on fumes during the day, and feel physically exhausted at the end of your day, this is not normal.
  • Are you experiencing compassion fatigue or moral injury? Do you find it difficult to empathize with others? Are you bothered by decisions and situations that feel wrong to you?
  • Have you noticed increased substance use? Are you drinking alcohol or using other substances more often than usual? Be honest here; this is a big concern.
  • Do you have new physical ailments, like headaches, other body aches and pains, indigestion, or appetite problems? Are you overeating (junk food) or undereating? You may be experiencing sexual difficulties? These are all big concerns.
  • Have you begun to have nightmares about some of your patients? Are you reliving traumatic events? You probably want to forget the distressing things you’ve experienced, the losses and suffering you’ve seen lately. Do these memories keep reappearing in your dreams?

Reach For Help

Accordingly, If you are experiencing any of these warning signs of physician burnout, it is important that you reach out to a friend or colleague for support. These are serious indicators of possible burnout. Please schedule a visit with your medical director or department chair. Plan to discuss whether you can take some time away from work, even for just a few days? Please consider scheduling a visit with a professional psychotherapist. You will not regret it.

burned out physicians

exhausted tired physicians


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