Long hours, extreme dedication to their work, and an overload of responsibility can make physicians more prone to burnout than other professionals. And hospitalists are no exception because they may experience more causes of burnout than other types of physicians.
Here are some basic facts about burnout among physicians, how to determine if you are burning out, and what to do about it.
Facts about Physician Burnout
In her presentation “Burnout and Hospitalists” at the 2005 SHM Annual Meeting in Chicago, Tosha Wetterneck, MD, hospitalist and assistant professor of medicine at University of Wisconsin (Madison), defined physician burnout as “erosion of engagement with the job.” The components of this erosion can include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (distancing yourself from your job), and reduced personal accomplishment.
“Burnout,” said Dr. Wetterneck in her presentation, “is caused by work overload and time pressure, as well as role ambiguity, lack of job resources or support, severity of patient problems, and lack of reciprocity from patients.” Other factors include a perceived loss of control and rapid changes on the job.
Hospitalists in particular may be prone to burnout because they work under high expectations—their own as well as others’—to provide better outcomes. A 1999 study by the National Association of Inpatient Physicians (SHM’s former name) revealed a 13% burnout rate among hospitalists, with an additional 25% at risk for burnout. That may sound high, but emergency and critical care physicians experience burnout rates of up to 60%.
What to Do about Burnout
Lidia Schapira, MD, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, has written and spoken on the subject of physician burnout.
“It’s a real phenomenon,” she explains, “and in part it reflects an exaggerated commitment to work. But a professional who loves what they do—if they have support—can [experience] enthusiasm rather than burnout.”
Without support from their organization or colleagues, a physician can become overwhelmed by the long hours and responsibilities of work, among other stressors. Here are Dr. Schapira’s steps for dealing with burnout:
1. Recognize it: “The symptoms [of burnout] are very similar to depression,” she points out. “One way to distinguish between burnout and depression is to take a little holiday from work. If your symptoms are connected to work, you’ll feel better. If you feel equally bad on vacation, you probably suffer from depression.”
2. Address your stressors: If you realize you are burned out, your next step should be to make a list of on-the-job stressors and prioritize them. Then tackle them one at a time. “You have to identify the things that are most stressful to you and make changes,” says Dr. Schapira. “For example, if your schedule is overloaded, find a way to build in breaks for food or fresh air.”
If there are specific parts of the job that are “horrible” for you, she says, try to delegate them to someone else on your team. By delegating or swapping tasks with others, you may be able to eliminate your burnout—and possibly theirs as well. Another important factor is having an ally. “Find someone on your team who you can talk to,” advises Dr. Schapira. “Chat with your colleagues about your problems.”
3. Work for organizational change: Hospitalists can talk to their administrators and colleagues about easy changes that can eliminate stressors, such as a change to the schedule, improved communications or additional secretarial help to ease the burden.
“Point out that a change may lead to more productivity,” suggests Dr. Schapira. “There’s a far better likelihood of having your changes accepted.” To help ensure that your employer is willing to make some changes, point out that burnout in general is associated with turnover and absenteeism, lower productivity, and stress-related health outcomes including alcohol and drug abuse.