Treating professional burnout when you’re the doctor

Business News | 30 Jun, 2019 |

When asked why they enter the medical field, 75 percent of medical students, residents and physicians said it was to help people. Even though this career is derived from the passion to help others, physicians are among one of the top professions to have a high rate of professional burnout, depressive symptoms and susceptible to suicide.

So, what is professional burnout, what causes medical professionals to develop it, what does it do to them and how can it be treated? 

What is professional burnout?

Burnout is defined as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three elements:

• Feeling exhausted or having one’s energy feel depleted

• A feeling of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and increased mental distance from one’s job

• Reduced professional efficacy and a disconnected feeling to patients or when treating a patient because just another task

Burnout can make medical personal feel deflated and unlike themselves. Burnout occurs within work, but it can send medical professionals home feeling exhausted and disconnected to their everyday lives.

What causes professional burnout?

All professions have fatigue issues, but those in the medical field have unique contributing factors that lead to burnout. They work long, intense hours and are often sleep deprived from working 12-plus hour shifts. Not only are they running on low fuel, but this is a high-stress job and they are often dealing with life-and-death situations. Even though doctors and other care providers are trained to operate under pressure, the perception that they are to be 100 percent “on” 100 percent of time can lead to unnecessary pressure and burnout. 

What are the effects of burnout?

Burnout can have lasting, detrimental effects on those who develop it. For example, a psychiatrist’s empathy for their patient could lead to absorbing their patients’ mental issues as their own. Burnout can manifest itself into depression, substance abuse and addiction. Some severe cases can even lead to suicide. Substance use and abuse can be anything from alcoholism, to using illegal drugs or improperly taking prescription medication. The consequences of substance use affect mental, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of the licensed professional’s life.

What can be done?

Burnout among the medical field is an under-recognized and underreported problem and is more common than one might think. In fact, according to The American Psychiatric Association, it’s estimated that 2 out of 5 psychiatrists have professional burnout.

Medical professionals are less likely than the general population to seek mental health treatment. According to the American Medical Association, when physicians were asked why they have not sought out help, 50 percent said their symptoms were not severe enough, 47 percent claimed they could manage without help of a professional, 20 percent did not want their “secret” to get out and 39 percent stated they were simply too busy.

Time constraints, hesitancy to draw attention to self-perceived weaknesses and concern about being stigmatized with mental illness or addiction creates strong barriers to seeking treatment. One of the most effective avenues for treating burnout is with a comprehensive assessment and integrative treatment plan that is specifically tailored to concerns affecting licensed professionals and their loved ones. The consequences of not seeking treatment can affect mental, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of the licensed professional’s life.


Dr. Jerome Lerner is the director of professionals program at Sierra Tucson.

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