Lifestyle Changes Help Physicians Overcome Burnout

SEPTEMBER 07, 2010
Ed Rabinowitz
Burnout is a serious matter that affects physicians and their patients as well. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon condition.

In a 2009 survey of 8,000 surgeons by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, roughly 40 percent of respondents said they were burned-out in their jobs. Non-specialists feel the same: A recent survey by the American College of Physicians and the American Board of Internal Medicine found that 17 percent of general internists are no longer working in their field of practice.

“Burnout can happen when a person is under a lot of stress, and the medical field is pretty stressful,” says Serena Wadhwa, PsyD, LCPC, CADC, the director of the TriQual Living Center in Chicago. “If there isn’t some balance between personal life and professional life, that can certainly contribute to burnout.”

The Causes of Burnout

The demanding work schedule, particularly for young physicians, can lead to burnout, says Wadhwa. Physicians who spend eight to 16 hours a day on call, or providing services to others, while not taking care of themselves are prime candidates for burnout. The long hours endured as a younger physician also can contribute to an accepted lifestyle that is very susceptible to burnout later in life.

“As people get older, they’re still in the frame of mind that they can work the way they did when they were 25,” Wadhwa says. “Not only does that contribute to burnout, but [the condition] may stay around longer later in life.”

Wadhwa says there are clear signs and symptoms of burnout: Frustration at work, being more irritable, and having a shorter temper are common indicators. Being withdrawn, not paying as much attention to patients, or engaging in less conversation are also red flags.

“One of the things that’s important for physicians to recognize is the fact that they sometimes have the belief that they can’t experience stress because they’re physicians,” she explains. “I think that’s a very distorted pattern of thought, and it can contribute to burnout.”

A Case in Point

Melisa Holmes, MD, an OB-GYN, had a successful clinical practice in South Carolina for a dozen years, but began to “dread going back to work after a few days off.” Holmes explains that people go into medicine because they really enjoy the patient contact. “And with the way offices are these days, where you have to see more patients to make the same income, there’s just no time for [patient interaction],” she says.

For Holmes, the practice of medicine became more of a job than a passion. “I’ve always enjoyed delivering babies, and it didn’t matter what time of day it was,” she says. “But there came a point where at three in the morning, when I was sitting there delivering a baby, I kept wishing that I was home. That’s when it really struck me.”

Holmes re-directed her energies. She teamed with colleague Trish Hutchison, MD, a pediatrician, to launch Girlology, an organization that offers educational programs and services for girls and their parents to enhance communication, build accurate knowledge about sexual development and reproductive health, and encourage healthy behaviors. It started as a part-time endeavor -- an outlet to the aspect of medicine they enjoyed -- but last year Holmes, a mother of three girls, stopped practicing medicine to focus on the organization full-time.

“I miss delivering babies, and I miss doing surgery,” Holmes admits, “but I don’t miss it so much that I’m willing to take call and put my family in turmoil again.”

Combating and Avoiding Burnout

TriQual Living Center’s Wadhwa says one of the most important aspects of combating burnout is to recognize and admit what you’re experiencing, rather than denying it. In addition, finding support -- a colleague, trained professional or support group -- to talk to about what you’re feeling is important.

“It’s definitely a step-by-step process,” Wadhwa says. “It’s not something that happens overnight. It takes a lifestyle change to avoid burnout from occurring, and then combat it if it does, because you don’t want it to come back.” She adds that if you’re experiencing burnout, it’s important to get a health checkup to make sure it’s not affecting you physically as well.

Holmes echoes those thoughts, and says a good way to begin recovering from burnout is to take a trip back in time. “Think back to what drove you into medicine in the first place, and see if you can find a piece of that in your practice, or as an outlet, that will allow you to experience those feelings again,” she says.



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