Physicians and other professionals are burning out at an alarming and unsustainable rate. Burnout solutions aren’t simple or easy to implement, but they are necessary.
If you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and have little control over your life and its schedule, you may be experiencing burnout. Or you might just be a resident.
It’s more than that, though. Feelings of detachment from your work and your patients, a loss of empathy, and a lack of a sense of autonomy are also very real and detrimental symptoms.
Burnout is tough on the individual, and it leads to poor patient care, as well. Everyone has a stake in this, including our patients.
What can you do once you’ve started to feel symptoms of burnout? Dr. James Turner has felt some of these symptoms himself, and he has a few suggestions.
This post was originally published on The Physician Philosopher
You’re Burned Out. Now What? Burnout Causes and Solutions
In March of 1977, two 747 passenger planes collided on a runway. 583 people lost their life on Tenerife island that day. After the Tenerife investigation, it was determined that there existed a culture problem in the aviation industry.
In an industry where the pilot was viewed as “God,” co-pilots were often so afraid of speaking up to the pilot, that they would sit silent to avoid being reprimanded – even if it mean that their silence would kill 583 people, including the silent co-pilot.
Can you imagine being so afraid of the system that you wouldn’t speak up, even if it led to your death – and the death of 582 other people?
The investigation into this tragic accident led to a realization that has forever changed the aviation industry – fixing culture problems involves fixing the system that causes the problem. It does not involve pointing fingers and expecting individuals, such as pilots, to change.
This way of viewing things is called Crew Resource Management.
The physician burnout epidemic has a lot to learn from the Tenerife tragedy and crew resource management.
Almost 50% of physicians are burned out. It is estimated that four hundred physicians end their own lives each year. These are haunting statistics that point to a culture problem that exists in medicine. It’s time that we performed our own investigation in our industry.
Let’s start by answering these three questions:
- Why are doctors burning out?
- How can we fix the burnout epidemic?
- I am burned out now what?
Why Are Doctors Burning Out?
The first time I realized I was starting to burnout, it had very little to do with my work place. In fact, I love my job. Are there things I’d like to change about it? Yes. But they were not the cause.
For me, it was caused by my lack of work-life balance (and, what I would learn later – A Grave’s Disease diagnosis leading to some mental health struggles).
My wife started a full-time job in July and that threw my world off-kilter. In my view, being a good husband and father trumps work every time.
So, when the current responsibilities at work began to encroach on my life (because of my increased responsibilities at home), the embers of burnout began to kindle.
That is my story, though. Many others have a story that is very different.
From electronic medical record requirements, pre-authorizations, and administrative requirements that take us away from practicing medicine to work-life imbalance and financial stress, the initial causes of burnout are almost too numerous to count.
Most of us went into medicine to help people. When red tape, insurance companies, and unnecessary paperwork stands in our way it can be frustrating. In fact, it often produces unproductive bitterness and resentment towards our work place.
Burnout is Systematic, but current Solutions are Individual
All of these causes of burnout are just the tip of the iceberg. They are initial sparks, but they do not explain the forest fire of burnout that is consuming the profession of medicine.
The real reason is that when these initial problems are expressed by physicians, hospitals and their administrators often turn a blind eye.
Physicians feel helpless to change a system that results in depersonalization, feelings of inadequacy at work, and emotional exhaustion that were well described by Maslach almost 40 years ago.
In medical school, I was taught that “treating the symptoms and not the disease” is considered bad medicine. Tenerife taught the aviation industry the same lesson.
In medicine, we enjoy learning lessons the hard way. Many hospitals expect the physician to solve burnout by themselves. This includes recommendations to “fix burnout” through prayer/meditation, practicing gratitude, being in the moment, and other individual acts.
Such individual solutions miss the systemic and systematic causes of burnout.
We can see, then, why little progress has been made with physician burnout. The problem remains systematic/systemic; yet, the solutions are all individual.
How to Fix the Burnout Epidemic
Many hospitals in the health care system have adopted crew resource management when it comes to safety in the operating rooms, including the one where I work. We keep patients safe by depending on a system with fail-safes and checklists to help catch individual errors or red flags.
The exact same process needs to occur in the realm of burnout.
A systematic solution needs to be proposed to help fix all of these systemic problems. Of course, this will cost hospitals money, but the return on investment stands to be massive.
Hospital administrators and board members need to get together and realize that a happy physician is more productive and that when physicians decide to leave a hospital, the cost is exorbitant (ranging from $250,000 to $1,000,000 to replace that physician).
If ten physicians leave a hospital because of being burned out and unhappy, this will cost the hospital $2.5 million to $10 million. If even a fraction of that money is spent reducing burnout by hiring scribes, improving resources, and allowing for more support and time with patients; well, that would be money well spent.
Additionally, any hospital that does this can expect to recruit the most talented physicians to their work force as word spreads about the over-arching desire to work on physician burn out. This would lead to the most important improvement of all, an improvement in patient care.
I Am Burned Out. Now What?
Despite the flowery language above, I realize that many hospitals simply can’t or won’t help fix this problem. It turns out that our hospitals don’t always love us back. They will continue to pin the problem on the physician and their inability to deal with the job that they signed up for.
If you feel like you are in this boat, there are some possible solutions. And, no, I don’t intend to tell you to pray or meditate more often (even if that has been shown to be effective for some).
Solution Number 1: Change your focus
If you are burned out, I encourage you to do the same thing with burnout as I encourage you to do with your money. Be intentional.
Sit down. Write down a list with three columns. On the left, write down the parts of your job that you love. In the middle, write down the things about your job that you cannot stand. In the third column on the right, write down the goals that your employer has laid out for you.
For each part of your job that you would like to diminish, focus on something that matches your “love” column and your “employer’s goals” column. Then, go meet with your chair/boss/whomever.
Explain to them that you would like to do less of that thing you hate, focus more on what you love, and that this will help them meet your employer’s goals as outlined in the third column.
This may mean focusing more on research, education, administrative work, or something else entirely.
If you don’t feel like you have any bargaining chips, remember how much it will cost your employer to replace you. Your administration likely knows this information. You are not powerless here.
If all else fails, institute a Hell Yes Policy where you say “no” to everything that doesn’t make you say “Hell Yes!”
Solution Number 2: Financial Independence
If number 1 won’t work, then it may be time to focus on the tenants that are taught on this site: achieving financial independence as quickly as possible so that you can choose to practice medicine because you want to, and not because you have to.
When you reach this goal, you can do whatever you want – and no one else will have a say in that.
Even if you are not currently burning out, setting yourself on a path to FI is important. Who knows what you will think of your job in 5, 10, or 20 years.
Solution Number 3: Part-time work
“I can’t afford part-time work, what is he thinking!?!?”
I hear you. This is a possible solution, though.
Going part-time may involve earning some side income that is unrelated to your main gig. After all, side hustles are the best kind of asset protection.
You may need to decrease your cost of living (which will likely result in an equal amount of happiness if we learn the art of contentment), or delay your time to financial independence.
Crispy Doc has a series of posts on doctors who have cut back. The truth is that many physicians find that they still love their job when they just do less of it. It’s often a balance issue, and part-time work can be a great fix.
If you have made wise financial decisions, then this should be an option. Who cares if it delays your road to financial independence from 50 to 55, if it prolongs a career that you might love?
It’s certainly worth consideration.
Solution Number 4: Change Jobs
When the rubber meets the road, your mental health is more important than your job. If your employer isn’t willing to change, and you have tried the three options listed above – it might be time to consider changing jobs.
This may mean going to work for another employer that has (supposedly) better balance than your current work place. Locum tenens on your own terms is another option.
It may also mean leaving clinical medicine entirely. Some physicians opt to go and work for industry, pharmacy, or insurance companies. It may mean getting more involved in medical school education or some other non-clinical endeavor.
Never forget that your skill set is highly valuable. Working in the traditional “doctor gig” is not the only option.
Physician burnout is a problem that is consuming the field. It has impacts on patient care and – some may argue – is even a life and death problem for some physicians.
Like the aviation industry after Tenerife, our culture needs to change. And, if it won’t change, our doctors need to be empowered with solutions that allow them to take matters into their own hands.
What do you think is the predominant cause and solution of physician burnout? How can we fix physician burnout? What solutions have helped you in your journey?
8 thoughts on “You’re Burned Out. Now What? Burnout Causes and Solutions”
Thank you. I am a lawyer and not a physician, but we deal with many of the same issues. I have been dealing with extreme burnout this year, due to work/life imbalance and trying to keep my small firm afloat. This was more practical advice than any of the nonsense that the Bar doles out. My husband is also a lawyer and has not been able to work during COVID. We have lost a lot this year, but have been working towards financial independence for the past 7 years. Part of my struggle this year was shouldering the entire financial burden for our family and watching a lot of our work go down the drain. Despite the high levels of stress, pre or post-COVID, lawyers are always expected to handle the problem themselves. And are kindly reminded that any mistake made will be subject to discipline. Keep that balloon in the air at all times!! This post was helpful, even just to have it acknowledged that there are others, albeit in other fields, who think the way I do about some things. Practical solutions to the systemic problems are what we need.
There is a lot written on this subject….
Some of my thoughts:
Please stop calling it “burnout” There is a lot written about this but burnout is a derogatory term that has been put forward by hospitals etc and puts the onus on the physician.
As physicians and people who believe in science and data the term burnout is a wastebasket term and needs to go away…It is like using the term cancer and then hoping for a single treatment.
A physician or any human for that matter who is thinking about or acts on taking their own life is not “burned out”.
I am not sure what the right term is for what is going on with physicians but burnout is too broad and suggests there is something intrinsically wrong with us. There is a subset that is clearly endangering the physician or patient or both. This can be depression, PTSD, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, and a myriad of other issues that directly or indirectly relate to the job or the person.
There are also those who just don’t like the job and should find something else. Sadly, for many who picked medicine early in their life journey it is not the right fit. As much as physician experiences are common they are often quite different.
I may be a heretic but I think the blanket statement that we all went into medicine to help people is an overused cliche. I know many physicians in all stages of their careers and across all generations who went into medicine for money, prestige, family expectations, or had a false sense of what being a “doctor” was when they made the decision. We all know people in our med school class or beyond who should have done something else but were so far down the path that it was too hard to change course. That is not to say that the majority of physicians don’t want to heal or help their patients but let’s be realistic about the heterogeneous nature of people who chose medicine as a career.
Our experiences in training and practice are also very heterogeneous. I am a 53 year old cardiologist/EP who has taken q4-6 night call for almost 20 years. I do not do shift work. I work all day doing cases etc then am on call for the ER who calls me incessantly for anyone with chest pain so my name can be plastered all over the chart. I then work all day post call often with no sleep. That is the job as it is currently structured. I constantly worry if I am doing the right thing for people and in my world of EP there is a lot of uncertainty and high expectations. I have no margin for error and every time I go into a case it could turn out badly. My stresses are different then the ER MD on a 12 hour shift but who is facing a constant deluge of uncertainty and risk of missing a diagnosis or dealing with drug seeking behavior with few resources. It is different then the hospitalist which is different then the PCP that is different then anesthesia etc.
I think what we can all agree on is that medicine is a stressful and complex job/career/calling. It is not as simple as we are all pilots who do the same job. Asking hospitals/medical systems/payers etc to find a single solution or set of solutions is not realistic. The system we have is archaic and change in medicine is extremely slow. So much of it stems from military models of hierarchy and the fact that what we do are called “orders” should tell us something about the model we continue to perpetuate.
I do not have a simple solution just like there is no simple “cure” for cancer. The best suggestion I have is try and be specific with the diagnosis and focus the treatment accepting that there is no simple mindfulness exercise that will make “burnout” go away.
FI does help!!!
Being a philosophy major, I appreciate the focus on terms… But I also don’t think our distaste for a single term should prevent having a good conversation.
You might prefer calling the common experience mentioned above this instead….?
That was written by the same author (me).
The problem I have when people say things similar to what you said above is that (1) I agree that burnout is not the right term, but and it is a huge BUT… (2) it is the term that is colloquially used to describe the experience and when used everyone knows what the conversation is about.
So, until the common vernacular moves on to better terminology, I’d rather use a word that allows a common conversation; even if I agree with the victim blaming doctor problem that the term “burnout” causes.
I will also add that pretty much every article I wrote or have written on this topic is clear that I think the system is to blame for the common experience many of us have shared. And, that is coming from someone who has experienced burnout/moral injury/second victim syndrome/secondary PTSD/compassion fatigue or whatever other term makes people feel best when having this conversation.
We can’t lose the forest for the trees (here is the term I currently prefer in this conversation)