How Can I Keep From Being Burned Out in Med School?

Thomas E. Robey, MD, PhD


March 10, 2010


I'm feeling burned out and think it's because I don't have time for myself. How do you find time to relax during medical school?

Response from Thomas E. Robey, MD, PhD
Resident, Emergency Medicine, Yale-New Haven Hospital, New Haven, Connecticut

As a high achiever training for a demanding field, this will probably not be the last time you ask this question. Whether this is the first or the 40th time that you've found yourself needing a break, it is a good time to learn some new tricks for the balancing act that you will be performing for the rest of your career. You are right to realize that you may need some time to yourself.

I've been in your shoes once or twice a year since I started medical school in 2001. Sometimes I simply wonder where all of my time has gone. Occasionally I'll feel exhausted or a diminished sense of accomplishment. We aren't alone. Studies suggest that about half of US medical students feel burned out at some point.[1] In any field, burnout occurs when 1 (or more) of these 6 areas deteriorates:

  • Workload;

  • Control;

  • Community;

  • Reward;

  • Fairness; and

  • Values.[2]

Each of these areas can get out of control for medical students in several ways. Instead of worrying about which pillar is about to collapse, it's helpful to step back and think about how you can shore up each of these areas. When something happens in class that is clearly unfair, or you get buried in your workload, you can rely on other meaningful areas of life to help stave off burnout. Having a good work-life balance or being well-rounded simply means that you are paying attention to your psychological needs.

Whether you separate school from home or take an integrated approach to your day-to-day activities, it's important to identify ways to escape stressful situations, if only for a short time. You were probably told by someone during your medical school orientation that you should keep up with " what makes you you". This might include maintaining a commitment to your family, community, or spiritual life, keeping up with hobbies and interests, and interacting with friends and colleagues outside of school. Each of these will promote your well-being and enable you to get through the rough patches. If you discover strategies that you know work for you, they will come in handy in the future, making you a better physician and ultimately improving patient care.[3]

What are some practical ways that you can improve your work-life balance?

  1. Try not to fall behind on your work. Looming and passing deadlines make for high-stress periods. A calendar is a simple way to keep track of multiple assignments. You can break down each task (reading a syllabus, outlining a text, taking X number of practice questions) into smaller blocks that you can write on your calendar to check off as you complete them. Schedule in weekly flex time when you can catch up or take time off. If you don't need to catch up, you can use it as bonus time.

  2. Don't forget about friends and family who knew you before medical school. Let them know that you may get stressed and need their support along the way. You may be hundreds of miles away from them, but a telephone call or an email can lift your spirits! Your new colleagues at med school are also important for support because they are experiencing much of what you are.

  3. It's generally easier to maintain hobbies and interests from before school than to start new ones, but learning something new has its own rewards. Either way, I recommend 3 types of hobbies: First, make sure you have a favorite way to exercise. Blowing off steam is healthy in many ways. Find something that allows you to express yourself in a way that is not multiple choice. Whether it's art, music, a service to others, or even chores around the house, just do something for you. Finally, you should do something outside. Maybe you're not a rock climber or athlete, but getting some fresh air after all that time in classrooms, libraries, and coffee shops will do your mind and body some good.

  4. Tangible rewards are hard to come by in medical education. Even an honors grade can seems to lack heft. Set up some measurable ways to reward yourself for a job well done, and let it be a little indulgent. Is it shopping? Watching a favorite television show? Or an extra day off?

Paying deliberate attention to your own needs can help you survive, and even thrive, in medical school.

One last note: If you are burned out or afraid that you might be heading there, talk to someone about it. Maybe you can start with a trusted friend or instructor. Most schools have counseling services that you can access for free. Burnout happens to almost half of all medical students, so it can happen to you. Fortunately, there are people out there who would love to help you through it.


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