The Healthcare Provider Burnout Epidemic: The Space Between

Clinicians are no strangers to stress. Diagnosing a problem and determining a means to treat it is, after all, can be a life or death situation. When it comes to communicating issues within their community, however, they often seem to be in denial - whether it is themselves or their peers who are suffering. The excessive incidence of burnout within the medical field has been linked to numerous stress-related afflictions - some of which could have dire consequences. Considering up to 60% of physicians have reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, addressing this issue is imperative to the healthcare community as a whole.

Burnout can affect clinicians in various ways. One might cope by expressing job dissatisfaction, while some choose to leave the field entirely.  Others may suffer from more serious manifestations of their stress, ranging from physical issues such as obesity to anxiety or depression In some cases, it could even lead to substance abuse or suicide. A survey of American surgeons revealed that although 1 in 16 had experienced suicidal ideation in the past 12 months, only 26% had sought psychiatric or psychologic help. They found a strong correlation between the symptoms of depression as burnout as indicators of potential suicidal ideation.  More than 60% of those who had reported experiencing suicidal ideation indicated their reluctance to seek help, due to concerns regarding their medical license.

Burnout is prompted by a series of psychological, sociological and biological components.  Considering how many doctors tend to define themselves by their profession, the workplace seems to play a more prominent role, along with a heightened emphasis on job satisfaction.  Despite misconceptions, the long hours associated with clinical work are not the primary cause of burnout but are considered a secondary factor that escalates the effects of the more significant factors. The workplace factors thought to increase the risk for burnout are:

  • Bureaucracy
  • Feeling like a 'cog in a wheel'
  • Interpersonal issues between coworkers
  • Harassment
  • EHR Implementation
  • Long Hours

Physician, heal thyself

When confronting the effects of burnout, whether moderate or serious, many clinicians feel isolated from their coworkers or fear the stigma of asking for help.  Considering the time and dedication it takes to build a career in medicine, it is no surprise fear of losing that status would discourage many from communicating a problem.  When you have worked your entire life towards a goal, it can be terrifying to admit that you are having difficulty managing yourself within it.  Between the possibilities for personal or institutional retribution, many clinicians choose to remain silent.

While the medical community as a whole has recognized the existence of burnout and larger institutions have started programs to counteract the effects, many independent clinicians have few options.  

If you are struggling, know that there are professionals who are trained and able to help you. You can also proactively take steps towards prevention, by taking the time to fulfill your own self-care needs. By remembering to take care of yourself first and foremost, you will be better equipped to extend that care towards others.  If we create a culture of compassion and understanding, perhaps others might feel comfortable sharing their experiences.  Having a community of doctors that are balanced and more satisfied allows for better patient care.  The fast pace and critical repercussions in the world of healthcare and medicine may never go away, and there may be more bureaucratic tasks added to workloads in the future - but it is the space between your stressors and your reactions that define your situation.

As a clinician, what activities do you find reduce your stress?