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What Is Burnout? How Can Clinicians Help Prevent It?

By Dr. James Horst, DO, FACN, TeamHealth National Medical Director of Behavioral Health and Post-Acute Care

Burnout is not technically a clinical term but one that is used to describe a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that renders a person close to being disabled.

Someone experiencing burnout may feel like they are unglued, exhausted and non-functional. Their energy level is depleted, they lack motivation and may feel hopeless. Other hallmarks of burnout are anger, irritability and depression. The condition becomes worse as people become withdrawn and are unable to be reasoned with when it comes to their behaviors.

Many of us are potentially susceptible to burnout. It is a consequence of prolonged stress and a desire to accomplish something that may be just too difficult to achieve. You can be working at something that causes frustration, but you pour yourself into it day after day, week after week. You may not pay attention to the effect that all-consuming work (whether physical or mental) has on your mind and body. Your perspective becomes narrowed and solutions for problems escape you. Your creative self seems to shut down and you are at a loss. This phenomenon can happen at work and in relationships. You may be in a high-conflict, acrimonious loop that seems to never end. You may feel helpless and hopeless, and despite what you think are your best efforts, nothing is getting better. Not being mindful may lead to becoming burned out.

Burnout Recovery and Prevention

Keep in mind that getting burned out is a process. It takes time to feel burned out and the sooner you recognize that you are on the road to becoming a victim of burnout the quicker you will be able to either prevent it or recover from it. If you are suffering from burnout treat it very seriously. Your health and well-being are truly at stake here. Burnout is the equivalent to chronic stress in the extreme and paying immediate attention to it is critical.

Burnout Recovery Strategies

Stop Whatever you are doing that is tied to feeling burned out needs to stop. This may not mean forever, but at least for a recovery period. It is essential that when you are about to go over the cliff of burnout you must apply the brakes and take time off. At this stage it is not enough to simply take an hour or two for lunch or a nap; you may be beyond that point. Those simple strategies are better utilized early on before the stress level gets extreme.

Get Help

When pulling away from the source of stress you may feel even more depressed or hopeless because you believe you were unable to successfully resolve things before becoming burned out. This is normal. You need to realize that being in the process of burnout is like being in a tunnel; your vision is narrowed. Therefore coming up with creative ideas and solutions, especially on your own, is that much more difficult. In addition to unplugging temporarily, you should share your thoughts, concerns, fears and ideas with trusted family or friends. It is important when taking time off that you can learn ways to re-energize, become refreshed and gain clarity. If these measures are not successful, then working with a mental health professional is critical.

Rethink and Reconsider

Whatever you were doing before getting to this point wasn’t working well enough.

While you may feel that you just need more time or a little more sleep, the likelihood is that, if you are burned out, a little more time or a little more sleep will not really help. You need to rethink what is important and redefine your priorities and your goals. You need to evaluate whatever you were doing to understand if it truly aligns with your values. You need to widen your perspective and see things from a different point of view. This self-examination is essential for you to be able to return with a renewed sense of purpose and the strength to move forward.

Burnout Prevention Top 10 Tips

Practice Relaxing. Take a few minutes (only a few minutes), close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell yourself to relax. You can program your mind to calm down with just a little practice. You can also take a warm bath or stretch daily. Practice relaxing every day and you will notice an improvement in your stress level.

Sleep. If you are not sleeping well or are sleep deprived you will likely perform poorly at work, feel irritable and be short-tempered. Sleep deprivation is often a major contributor to burnout. Practice good sleep hygiene.

Exercise. Every study shows the benefits of getting any form of exercise. It will help to reduce stress and is essential for well-being. It may not prevent burnout but it can delay it.

Reduce Alcohol. If you drink more than one or two servings of alcohol daily, then you are probably drinking too much. Drinking too much will wear you down, reduce your creativity and can potentially cloud your judgment.

Laugh. Laugh often, lighten up, be a little less serious and try finding the humor in things. You’ll cheer others up and enjoy yourself more often. Laughing is good for you physically and mentally and can help put things in perspective.

Get Organized. Lack of organization can lead to unnecessary frustration. Freeing yourself of clutter and learning better time management skills can go a long way to reducing stress and preventing burnout.

Express Yourself. Be assertive, not aggressive and say what’s on your mind and in your heart in an effective, respectful way at work and at home. Don’t let resentment and anger build up. Talk with the people you care about and who care about you.

Do Not Procrastinate. If you often find yourself putting things off or avoiding what you know needs to be done you are unnecessarily causing stress. Deadlines can creep up quickly and you may find yourself becoming frantic because you procrastinated.

Learn to Compromise. Negotiation is a fundamental principle in business and life. If you want something you have to give something. Everybody wins when there is flexibility.

Stay Positive. Have positive references handy so you can call upon them when you are stressed and feeling gloomy. Know the things in your life that you are grateful for and think about them often. Stop beating yourself up with negative self-talk.

As a part of TeamHealth’s commitment to physical and mental well-being, we invest in programs to help lessen and aid in clinician burnout incidents. Our LiveWell WorkLife Services help colleagues combat the challenges of burnout, depression, anxiety, financial and legal issues and more. These health resources and personalized support services help our clinical and non-clinical associates find the balance, encouragement and care needed to live the healthiest lives possible.

For more information, visit our suicide prevention awareness page, and to access LiveWell WorkLife Services call 844-526-8300. Please contact with questions.

originally posted on September 28, 2018