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Let's Talk About Burnout

What is Burnout?

Burnout is officially defined as an occupational phenomenon (rather than a medical diagnosis) that results from chronic, unmanaged workplace stress. Burnout is characterized by feelings of:

  • energy depletion or exhaustion

  • negativity or cynicism about one's job, and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

My personal experience of burnout was dominated by feelings of frustration and powerlessness. I saw fault wherever I looked - I felt frustrated by my boss, my coworkers, hospital administration, “the system”, my husband, my children, even my patients. At the same time, I felt powerless – it felt like things were happening TO me and that I lacked choices and the ability to make change. At the time, I did not identify this as “burnout.” I was still (highly) functioning, managing a job and a family, finding nuggets of joy in my relationships and work. Yet, I felt an omnipresent hum of discontent, a sense that something was off. That was burnout.

I think of burnout as a filter that distorts the way we see the world. It causes feelings of heaviness, exhaustion, defeat, powerlessness. The filter of burnout acutely highlights the parts of our lives that feel frustrating, stressful, or unfulfilling and blurs those parts that bring joy, connection and peace. Sometimes burnout feels numb or detached. Importantly, burnout exists on a spectrum – the filter of burnout can be thin and fleeting at times, and at other times intense and impenetrable.

So why does physician burnout matter?

Physician burnout hurts patients. Extensive research shows that healthcare providers who are experiencing burnout are more likely to make medical errors. Their patients have poorer outcomes (including increased in-hospital mortality, catheter- and line-associated infections, and prolonged postoperative recovery time).

Physician burnout hurts hospitals, universities, and the medical system. Physicians who are experiencing burnout are less clinically and academically productive and are far more likely to leave medicine, to change employers, or to work part time. Increased turnover is costly for employers and disrupts patient care and medical education. One analysis showed that burnout is responsible for an organizational cost of approximately $6,600 per physician per year.

Physician burnout hurts physicians and their loved ones. Burnout has been linked to cardiovascular disease and a significant decrease in life expectancy. Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely to also experience depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidality.

Physician burnout hurts everyone.

Stay tuned - we’ll talk next time about the startling high rates of physician burnout and about contributors to this epidemic. We need to understand both as we work to lighten the filter of burnout and to ease its impact.

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If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, please seek professional help.

The Physician Support Line provides free & confidential care by volunteer psychiatrists: 1-888-409-0141

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or by dialing ‘988’ on your cell phone.


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