According to psychologists, signs of burnout include decreased enthusiasm for work, growing cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment. As the
name implies, individuals suffering from burnout feel as though a fire that once burned inside them has dwindled, and perhaps even been entirely
extinguished. In many cases, they report a sense of having "run out of fuel," and like my colleague, feel as though they "have nothing left."
Of nearly 7,300 physicians who participated in the Archives of Internal Medicine's national survey, 46% reported at least one symptom of burnout,
and the overall rate of burnout among physicians was 38%, as opposed to 28% among other US workers. The highest rates of burnout were reported among
primary care physicians, including family physicians, general internists and emergency medicine physicians.
Why should rates of burnout be higher among physicians? For one thing, physicians tend to work longer hours than other workers, on average about 10 more
hours per week. Moreover, striking an appropriate work-life balance appears to be a bigger challenge for physicians, in part because they often tend to
keep work and personal life more separated than other workers. The authors of the study speculate that such a high rate of burnout could only result from
system-wide issues in medicine, as opposed to the personal susceptibilities of a few physicians.
The issue of physician burnout is important. As the US population grows and ages, the number of physicians needed to care for them increases. When burnout
leads physicians to reduce or cease their practice altogether, patient access to medical care is diminished. Moreover, burnt-out physicians are likely to
be less productive, make more mistakes, and generally deliver a lower quality of care than their fully engaged colleagues. Finally, physicians are human
beings too, and their suffering should summon no less compassion and concern than anyone else's.
Physicians react to burnout in a number of ways. Some, like my colleague, withdraw from their practices, reducing their workloads or leaving the practice
of medicine entirely. Others become less engaged with their patients and the profession and suffer a decline in the quality of their work. Still others
turn to unhealthy and even self-destructive habits, such as alcoholism, excessive or inappropriate use of prescription drugs, and even illicit substances.
Some consider suicide. Others may turn to colleagues, friends, or family for help, or seek professional counseling.
Unfortunately, individuals and organizations often respond to burnout by recommending coping strategies focusing on the reduction of stress. The rationale
for this approach is straightforward: individuals suffering from burnout seem to be overly stressed. They feel overworked, excessively scrutinized, or
overburdened with unnecessary or unfulfilling tasks. To combat burnout, some suppose, we need only reduce such stressors, by cutting back on working hours,
relaxing intrusive oversight, and finding ways to lift the burden of "busywork" from the shoulders of physicians.