Burnout among physicians is much higher than burnout in the general population. But could it be that many physicians diagnosed with burnout are actually suffering from boredom? Here are some of the synonyms listed under the heading of boredom: apathy, weariness, dissatisfaction, frustration, restlessness, lack of enthusiasm, lack of interest, lack of concern. And here’s the AMA’s definition of burnout: “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lost sense of accomplishment.” Sounds like boredom and burnout go hand-in-hand. This might explain, in part, why younger physicians, “defined as those doctors less than 55 years of age, are 200 percent more likely to experience burnout compared with their older peers” (ama-assn.org, 3/4/2019). Could it be that many are simply bored? Or, are younger doctors more likely to become bored and, therefore, more susceptible to burnout?
Whether it’s burnout, boredom, or a combination of the two, a recent study suggests that the physician burnout rate may be shrinking. Published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a survey of more than 5000 physicians shows that physician burnout peaked in 2014 when more than 54 percent of U.S. physicians said they were suffering from burnout. By 2017 the level had dropped to nearly 45 percent.
The Mayo Clinic researchers identified several factors that may be responsible for the apparent reduction in the physician burnout rate: (1) burned out physicians may be leaving the profession, (2) physicians may be adapting to a changing practice environment, (3) initiatives aimed at reducing burnout may be paying off, (4) team-based care may be easing stress on physicians, and (5) the year 2014, when burnout was at its peak, may have been an outlier year that had especially high administrative regulations and consolidation taking place.
Although the trend is in the right direction, physician burnout remains at crisis levels. One recent report blames the high level of burnout on the “unyielding demands of electronic health record systems and ever-growing regulatory burdens” (Massachusetts Medical Society), activities most physicians would likely refer to as “boring.”
“The majority of burnout is related to systems factors,” said Dr. Christine Sinsky, a general internist and the AMA’s Vice President of Professional Satisfaction (ama-assn.org, 3/4/2019). “Physicians who have optimized teamwork or have improved workflow have been able to go home an hour or more earlier every night. Whether you are male or female, a parent or non-parent, that extra time can go a long way to restoring your sense of well being.”
Although most of the research on physician burnout has been devoted to system factors, the question remains: How much of the physician burnout epidemic is connected to boredom? There’s no quick or easy answer to this question, except to say “it all depends.” For the individual “burned out” physician, reflecting on this question may be the first step toward a brighter future.