Battling physician burnout

Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of a sense of personal accomplishment. These are the hallmarks of physician burnout. Unfortunately, professional burnout continues to be pervasive among physicians in the United States. Forty-two percent of the more than 15,000 physicians who responded to Medscape’s 2017 physician lifestyle survey reported burnout, and 54 percent of 6,880 physicians who participated in a 2014 Mayo Clinic survey reported at least one symptom of burnout.

The impact of physician burnout is far-reaching. Not only does it take a large toll on a physician’s physical and psychological wellbeing, it is also linked to lower patient satisfaction and care quality, increased medical error rates and malpractice risks, and higher physician staff turnover.

Reasons for burnout

Unfortunately, the same character traits that make physicians great at their jobs—being driven workaholic perfectionists with a passion for solving problems—are also traits that make them more susceptible to burnout. However, burnout is not just an individual problem. There are a number of systemic issues that create a ripe environment for physician burnout. According to the Medscape survey, physicians identified too many bureaucratic tasks; long work hours; lack of respect from administrators, colleagues, or staff; and the increased computerization of practice as the top reasons for burnout. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) also identified low control of pace, a chaotic work environment, and family pressure as major contributing factors.

Addressing physician burnout

While there is no one-size-fits-all way to address physician burnout, the literature suggests that the most effective approaches combine individual and organizational strategies. Here are a few of the top tactics recommended by healthcare organizations and physician leaders:

  • Teach balance. Medical students and residents are taught to put the patient first. In a clinical setting, this is absolutely critical, but teaching driven, focused individuals how to carve out time in their lives for themselves may have big payoffs down the road in terms of reducing physician burnout.
  • Create a space to reset. Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, created a reset room, a quiet place where physicians and other providers can go to get away for a moment to recover from traumatic events and overwhelming situations.
  • Foster engagement. Employing daily team huddles where physicians and other providers can express their emotions may help to reduce daily stresses, promote a sense of community, and improve communication across the organization.
  • Create physician-friendly organizational settings. An AHRQ-funded study of 171,000 primary care physicians found that physicians have a greater sense of well-being in organizations in which compensation is not tied to individual productivity and where they are not under time stress and have more control over clinical issues.
  • Cultivate strong physician leaders. A 2013 study of more than 2,800 physicians at Mayo Clinic found that every one-point increase in a physician supervisor’s leadership score was associated with a 3.3 percent decrease in the likelihood of burnout.
  • Encourage participation in employee assistance programs. Many healthcare organizations offer free short-term counseling services to help employees deal with personal and work-related issues.
  • Practice good humor. Physicians, residents, and medical students may benefit from learning how to practice virtuous humor, which is rooted in temperance and self-reflection. Humor can relieve stress, provide an outlet for fears, increase resilience, and create a sense of community.

A sustained, multifaceted approach to physician burnout is good for physicians, good for patients, and good for healthcare organizations. A happy and engaged physician workforce optimizes an organization’s bottom line through improved patient outcomes, a better patient experience, and reduced overall healthcare costs.

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