Is Burnout Crushing Your Spirit? Here's Help

Leigh Page


August 10, 2016

In This Article

What Are the Warning Signs?

A packed schedule, hours of paperwork, and the feeling that you simply can't do everything you're required to do can leave you exhausted and demoralized. You love medicine, but the pace is killing you. What's gone wrong?

Physicians can suffer from all kinds of problems, but if you're always feeling overworked and discouraged, you might be experiencing burnout. Burnout involves a certain constellation of symptoms that differ from those of depression, ennui, or simple unhappiness. The Maslach Burnout Inventory,[1] a leading measure of burnout, pinpoints three symptoms: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced sense of accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion means you're unable to recover from stress during your time off. Depersonalization means you've turned negative and cynical, you're having trouble connecting with patients, and you find that you're constantly blaming others. And a reduced sense of accomplishment means you've lost confidence in your skills as a doctor and start to believe that your care won't do any good.

The physician most at risk for burnout is "the workaholic, superhero, Lone Ranger perfectionist," says Dike Drummond, MD, a family physician and CEO of The Happy MD, a physician coaching service in Mount Vernon, Washington.

"Lone Rangers" believe that only they can do the work before them; perfectionists don't tolerate mistakes; and workaholics work harder when they feel burned out, digging themselves deeper into the problem, Dr Drummond says.

"A workaholic has only one coping mechanism—to work harder," he says.

According to a 2015 Medscape survey,[2] 70% of non–burned-out physicians reported taking off more than 2 weeks a year, compared with 59% of those who are burned out.

Burned-out physicians learn how to avoid thinking about their problem, says David A. Hanscom, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Seattle who has recovered from his own case of burnout. "You suppress what you are, and you become this incredibly fearless warrior," he says.

"A lot of us are judgmental, angry perfectionists," he adds. "You lose awareness of your own feelings and lose compassion for others, including your patients. But you're hardest on yourself."


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