How Mentors Can Help Young Doctors Prevent Burnout

Rosalyn E. Plotzker, MD


March 09, 2017

Step Two: Building the Relationship

The time constraints that lead to burnout are, ironically, the exact reason you must devote time to create a valuable relationship with your mentor. Consider it an investment in self-care and endurance and, therefore, a priority. Face time with your mentor might happen easily, without intentionally scheduling "mentor time." Your mentor may be your research advisor or an attending with whom you work often.

Even with plenty of contact, designating time to "check in" every so often—and more frequently when you sense burnout creeping in—is important. Some people make this a ritual, such as once a month, to guarantee that it happens. These moments are essential to creating a strong relationship as they afford you the space to reflect on any recent challenges without the hurricane of hospital duties swirling around you both.

Step Three: Asking for What You Need

Your mentor is not your therapist. However, they are a resource to help you thrive. As noted by Wilkes and Feldman, residency faculty members are not always given formal training on how to mentor. On that account, telling your mentor when the demands of residency outweigh your reserve to cope with them is important. A framework of burnout was delineated by Dunn and colleagues[2] in their article, "A Conceptual Model of Medical Student Well-Being: Promoting Resilience and Preventing Burnout."

Your mentor is your advisor. Dunn and colleagues cite mentorship as a "replenishing factor" for the "coping reservoir," alongside psychological support, social activities, and intellectual stimulation. The authors recommend frank discussions about work-life balance; the mentee may even ask about the mentor's own experience. As the article states, "We would argue that some degree of personal self-disclosure (ie, discussing one's internal experiences along the route of medical training, describing one's own methods of dealing with competing demands) is not only appropriate but beneficial."

Your mentor is your teacher. Mentors can clarify gaps in medical knowledge and instruct on improving clinical skills. Gaining mastery is not only practical. For many residents, it relieves performance anxiety that contributes to burnout and builds confidence.

Your mentor is your advocate, which is perhaps most important of all. Good mentors do not just provide an ear to listen. They can act as a microphone to amplify your voice. As is apparent by the epidemic proportions of burnout, several systemic factors are at play. In especially malignant environments (ie, work-hour violations, disproportionate amounts of scut work, breaches in ethical conduct), residents should not be blamed for their burnout any more than the lung of a smoker can be blamed for its emphysematous tissue. Disclosure of environmental contributors to burnout enables mentors to raise concerns with hospital administration—a step towards creating a healthier workplace for you and your colleagues.

Step Four: Dos and Don'ts

In a recent segment of JAMA's "A Piece of My Mind—Mentee Missteps," by Vaughn and colleagues, six archetypes of bad mentees were described.[3] Here are a few mentee behaviors to avoid, followed by some important things to keep in mind.

Do Not

  • Overcommit;

  • Avoid confrontation;

  • Do unnecessary menial work in order to please your mentor;

  • Send countless emails, text messages, and meeting requests;

  • Be overly confident, appearing to not need or want a mentor; or

  • Backstab co-residents to appear competent while avoiding responsibility.


  • Express gratitude to your mentor;

  • Communicate honestly and directly about your goals;

  • Reach out for specific well-thought-out reasons; and

  • Recognize when you need to improve clinically and ask for help.

Although the danger of burnout remains, and no one solution can prevent it altogether, having a quality mentor-mentee relationship may just make a major difference.


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