How to Recognize the Signs of Physician Burnout

As a physician, you’ve dedicated countless hours and seemingly unlimited energy to pursue your path and get to where you are. You deserve to love and be equipped to excel in your role in the healthcare landscape, but, oftentimes, the role can leave you fighting fatigue and more than a few other factors associated with physician burnout. Fortunately, there are plenty of proven ways for physicians to prevent, manage and even reverse burnout symptoms that can range from efforts as simple as protecting the physical health of your heavily used feet and legs with a pair of quality compression socks that make a difference to seeking help from other professionals in your field. But in order to prevent, manage or reverse burnout, we have to know that burnout is the problem. So how do we recognize burnout as quickly, simply, and accurately as we respond to it?

You’ve probably noted the shift from excited and inquisitive to urgent and indifferent in at least one or two colleagues before as a physician — but when it comes to yourself, your friends, or your close colleagues, it may not be so easy to see the shift or understand it. Until now, that is.

Defining Physician Burnout

Burnout is a recognized syndrome characterized by exhaustion (physical, mental, and emotional). Physician burnout can happen to any physician at any stage of their career or life and can be caused by many factors. Speculated to be amongst the most common factors are a lack of work-life balance, your specific role and the conditioning of your training, heavy workloads and inefficient work processes, the leadership skills of anyone above you, and long hours and high patient volumes.

Along with being caused by many factors, the range of onset can vary widely as well — normally depending on the factors that caused it. Some physicians may experience a slow and gradual grinding down of their energy after years of use until it seems unreplenishable, and some may experience a fast and debilitating crash in their energy after a major (and commonly traumatic) event. 

Regardless of what factors have caused it, though, Maslach’s triad is one of the most commonly referred to definitions when it comes to burnout within the medical community, regardless of roles. Maslach’s triad includes (you guessed it) three cardinal symptoms that accompany and define burnout, which are exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of efficacy.

Physician Burnout at a Glance

Symptoms related to physician burnout can vary widely from person to person, but they could incorporate a lot more than just these three cardinal symptoms, including one or more of the following. Depending on the person as well, these could indicate a wide range in development from burnout coming on, burnout setting into burnout being full-blown.

These symptoms can include but are not limited to, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, disengagement, emotional outbursts, feelings of alienation, sleep disturbances, hypertension, loss of interest and enjoyment, loss of meaning, and reduced personal accomplishment (whether it be literally or simply a feeling that persists regardless of how much IS accomplished). In addition to taking a toll on physicians, burnout rates amongst them can take their toll on the healthcare system in serious areas such as costs and patient outcomes.

Physician Burnout at a Glance
Source: fizkes/

Recognizing Physician Burnout in Yourself or Someone Else

While Maslach’s triad and the symptoms listed above will help you understand burnout a little better and even confirm it in certain situations, they may manifest in different ways for different people and become tricky to decipher. 

The following may not be true symptoms of burnout, but they are true telltale SIGNS of physician burnout to watch for. These signs include:

  • Poor self-care and hygiene. Self-neglecting behaviors such as these can be harmful to your health and well-being, detrimental to your professional image and initiate a bad cycle. This sort of behavior includes things like not taking the time to eat properly, not taking the time to hydrate, not taking the time to bathe and not taking appropriate (and well-deserved) rest. 
  • Under-performance at home or work, including having difficulty doing familiar or simple tasks, being unable to concentrate, making mistakes you wouldn’t normally make, experiencing decreased empathy, showing up late or skipping work altogether. 
  • Feeling that there is no time for anything but work and, in turn, feeling a significant drop in enjoyment and satisfaction from it. From here, this can quickly turn into a feeling of hopelessness when getting up for work, trying to create a work-life balance, scheduling social or personal time or even trying to sleep. Which brings us to…
  • Consistent trouble sleeping, even though you’re likely excessively fatigued every day and exhausted every night. Not only is this not good for your health and well-being, but the loss of sleep will also likely be one of the biggest driving forces behind the rest of these signs, have a major impact on how quickly you burn out and majorly impact your ability to cope. 
  • Irritability and outbursts of anger and exasperation that are uncommon for you with friends, family, colleagues and possibly patients. 
  • Loss of belonging can be seen through isolation from others, a loss of meaning from and disengagement with work, a loss of interest in normally preferred and enjoyed items and activities and feelings of being a burden or even feelings of being a failure. 
Source: Monkey Business Images/

Responding to Physician Burnout

Burnout is preventable, manageable, and even reversible when it’s recognized and responded to. Just as with your patients, though, no single solution should be prescribed to every person. That being said, simple and commonly prescribed strategies for personal self-care do exist, and they include: 

  • Protecting your emotional health by maintaining the relationships that are worth your energy.
  • Protecting your physical health by maintaining a healthy lifestyle featuring adequate sleep, healthy and adequate meals, regular exercise and extra foot care considering the way you use them (think: good compression socks, slip-resistant shoes with features for doctors and frequent foot pampering time).
  • Protecting your mental health by maintaining personal interests outside of work, practicing mindfulness and pursuing personal development.
  • Protecting your professional health by maintaining your professional image (even if it’s an effort as simple as finding your perfect pair of scrubs or a new crisp lab coat) and pursuing professional development.  
  • Avoiding classic negative coping strategies such as excessive workload, caffeine, sugar, alcohol or drug intakes.

Getting Help

Being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout in yourself or a colleague as a physician is essential, but it’s equally important for family and friends to understand these signs and the subsurface force driving them, too. If left unnoted or not understood, burnout can be detrimental to the relationships you should be trying to preserve! Along with this, physicians are notorious for not seeking care as they’re commonly more concerned with providing it. Luckily, their family and friends can be too concerned with them to let it go!

Medical Disclaimer: All the content available on the website is just for informational purposes. It’s not a substitute for any Professional advice. Don’t take it personally. As a medical student, I’m just trying to use my information through my content, and please keep in mind it’s not written by a professional doctor. Use the data just for educational purposes.

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