health, ideas, medicine

Physician Burnout: More Than Just an Old Battery (Part 1)

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Good evening everyone. I hope that you are all well. I’m sorry that it has been a little while since my last post. I have been having quite a time trying to balance my clinical duties with long, long hours at the hospital with my research interests with my interpersonal relationships with physical activity with the needs of my new (recently ill) kitten. Needless to say, there has been a lot on my plate. So much so, that I have been feeling like there’s not too much room left. I thought I would right about a topic which has felt a little closer to home than usual – burnout.

We use the term ‘burnout’ pretty regularly in everyday life when speaking about a variety of household objects – batteries, candles, light bulbs, etc. Typically, the word is used to describe the amount of an energy source or, rather, lack thereof. When used in the context of physician health, burnout also denotes a depletion of energy but this energy takes on a number of different forms including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Different physicians may vary in how much each of the aforementioned domains is impacted; however, the outcome or end picture is fairly consistent. Physicians who are burnout are significantly less engaged and/or effective in their clinical duties. In some of the more extreme cases of burnout, physicians may feel totally disconnected from their personal and professional identities coupled with a sense of purposelessness. Now many people are at risk of experiencing burnout – it is not an affliction unique to physicians; however, I have chosen to speak from the physician perspective because of my personal experiences.

What does burnout look like? There are a few common symptoms which have been described in the literature; however, like many other illness states, burnout’looks different on different people. The rates of burnout vary between different specialties, genders, locations…you name it. The following are some commonalities which have been highlighted, although not all symptoms need to be present for one’s burnout to be clinically significant or, in non-medical jargon, “real”,

  • Exhaustion – Mentally, emotionally, physically, individuals feel that their current pace of life is not sustainable and that a “crash” is inevitable, however that crash may look.
  • Lack of purpose – You begin to question the usefulness of your work – “Why do I do this every day if people don’t listen to me?” Devoid of meaning, your work becomes something to get done, rather than something you enjoy doing. You go through the motions of your day-to-day without ever feeling like you are making a difference.
  • Depersonalization – You become mentally and emotionally disconnected from your work. You find it increasingly difficult to relate to others and the “real world” seems a lot less “real”. Deadlines – do they even matter? A complaint? It will probably just go away or maybe it won’t – it would not matter to you either way.


Have you ever experienced burnout? What was your experience like? What symptoms did you notice in yourself? How did you become aware of these symptoms? In future segments, I will be exploring the importance of identifying and addressing burnout as well as strategies individuals and organizations can employ to prevent its occurrence. Any other thoughts or questions? I would love to hear from you!


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