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Avoiding Physician Burnout: Symptoms & How to Address It

White Papers

Identification & prevention

This white paper will explore how to identify burnout among physicians, discuss its possible causes, and offer strategies for preventing and mitigating burnout and its negative impact on job satisfaction, patient safety, and performance.

Practicing medicine is an important and rewarding career path that attracts some of the nation’s brightest and most driven individuals. Unfortunately, practicing medicine is also an increasingly challenging and stressful profession with a high rate of job burnout.

Cause for concern

According to a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, nearly half of all U.S. physicians struggle with burnout, a syndrome characterized by emotional exhaustion and loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism or depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. Physicians on the front-line of care access—family practitioners, general internists and emergency physicians—are at the greatest risk and experience the highest levels of burnout.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Tait D. Shanafelt, told The New York Times that the results indicated burnout is a widespread problem among physicians. “We’re not talking about a few individuals who are disorganized or not functioning well under pressure; we’re talking about one out of every two doctors who have already survived rigorous training,” he said. “These numbers speak to bigger problems in the larger health care environment.”

The face of burnout

Physicians can experience burnout at any stage in their careers, from medical school through the years leading up to retirement. With a little self-awareness, physicians may be able to identify the emotional, physical, and behavioral signs of burnout and seek assistance. Among the most common symptoms of burnout are:

  • Loss of motivation
  • Feeling helpless, trapped or defeated
  • Detachment
  • Increased cynical or negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction or sense of accomplishment
  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Tiredness that does not respond to adequate rest
  • Lowered immunity
  • Frequent headaches and muscle aches
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits
  • Withdrawal from responsibilities
  • Isolating from others
  • Procrastinating
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Combating Burnout

To overcome physicians’ reluctance to ask for help, hospital and medical practice leaders should stand ready to offer support when a colleague shows signs of burnout. It’s important to remember—and sometimes to remind the physician—that a burnt-out doctor isn’t bad or weak. Let the physician know that what he/she is experiencing is temporary and treatable, it’s okay to get counseling, and reassure the individual that he/she can get help without fear of negative professional repercussions. Some practices offer physicians the services of a personal coach— sometimes a medical director or other individual in the physician’s department—who can listen and offer guidance and tactics on overcoming burnout.

Some strategies that physicians might consider and coaches/counselors may suggest include:

  • Carve out time for exercise. As few as 30 minutes a day of physical activity can help boost mood, improve sleep, and maintain healthy weight.
  • Read something non-medical. Even if you enjoy catching up on the latest medical news in your spare time, spending 10 minutes engrossed in a good novel or magazine can get your head out of workday stresses and help you feel refreshed.
  • Focus on family time. Even for those working long hours, making a point to spend quality time with a spouse or play with the kids can help combat burnout.
  • Start a hobby. Spending time on outside endeavors is linked to professional satisfaction.
  • Get in the classroom. From continuing medical education, to a book club, to professional speaking classes, learning something new is enriching and can help boost job satisfaction.
  • Find a mentor or support group. Talking with peers in a safe and confidential setting can alleviate stress and give physicians an opportunity to discuss strategies that they’ve found to be effective in combatting burnout.
  • Consider schedule adjustments. When appropriate, changing the number of hours worked or the timing of shifts can help alleviate burnout.
  • Delegate or set limits. If possible, delegate tasks or speak with colleagues about workload distribution.
  • Get involved. Hospital committees or task forces can offer opportunities to influence policies and culture that facilitate positive changes in the hospital work environment


Professional burnout affects nearly half of all physicians across the country, particularly those practicing on the front-lines of care. If left untreated, burnout c an lead to serious consequences for both the physician and his or her patients. But with knowledge about the signs of burnout and strategies to combat it, physicians and their hospital/medical practice leaders are better equipped to avoid and alleviate this widespread problem.