“My wife and I had come to realize one of the chief difficulties of the family doctor — the constant drain upon the emotions. To stand helplessly while relentless organisms destroy a beautiful mother, a fine father, or a beloved child creates terrible emotional distress; and this feeling is increased by the necessity of suppression. That is why the average lifetime of family doctors is 55 years, most of them succumbing to functional impairment.”
How depressing is that? It was written in 1939 by Dr. Joseph A. Jerger. Today, we might say that he and his physician colleagues succumbed to a bad case of “burnout,” characterized by a loss of motivation, ideals, and hope. Untreated, it can lead to disengagement and even depression.
“Physician burnout is a gradual process that occurs over an extended period of time,” says Dr. Jeanne Segal. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you if you’re not paying attention to the warning signals.”
Some signs and symptoms of impending physician burnout:
- Feeling of being trapped
- Sense of failure and self-doubt
- Decreased sense of accomplishment
- Withdrawal from responsibilities
- Taking out your frustrations on others
- Increasingly cynical and negative in outlook
- Use of alcohol and/or drugs to cope with daily living
Insidious as it may be, physician burnout can almost always be prevented or “cured.” Here are three tips from Dr. Segal:
- Set boundaries. Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time.
- Take a daily break from technology. Set a time each day when you completely disconnect. Put away your iPad and stop checking email.
- Nourish your creative side. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new. Start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to with work.
“As I learned through hard experience, the practice of medicine is a black hole that can absorb every moment you will give.” (M. Foster, M.D., Medical Economics, October 23, 1995).
The practice of medicine may be your calling and your very identity, but it doesn’t have to be your downfall.