I believe physician burnout is a symptom of a more significant systemic issue. It is a culmination of how medicine has changed throughout the years, leaving patients and physicians alike feeling hopeless, powerless, and disappointed.
Some people say physician burnout is a manifestation of depression. And while depression may contribute to physician burnout and vice versa, they are not the same thing. But similar to depression, physician burnout will start to invade all aspects of your life.
Typical signs of physician burnout include the following:
• Feelings of defeat and helplessness
• A sense of self-doubt and failure
• Despondency and feelings of isolation
• Loss of motivation
• Inability to focus or complete tasks
• Difficulty finding satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment at work
• A persistent negative outlook
Burnout has a significant impact on the quality of care delivered to patients. Ultimately, it affects our safety as providers and the safety of our patients.
Several different phases can occur when you are talking about burnout. Burnout is not something that occurs one day, and then everything is stuck that way. Burnout is more of a process that takes some time to appear and could happen over a relatively short time or several years. There are several stages that most people will experience at some time or another when they are dealing with physician burnout.
Psychologists have divided the process of burnout into twelve phases, but not every person goes through every step. These phases do not happen in any particular order and are not followed sequentially. These are more like incidents that should be watched out for when physician burnout is present, and even though someone might not go through all of them before reaching physician burnout, they are more likely to go through at least a few of them when it is occurring.
1. The Urge to Prove One’s Ability
Burnout starts with the desire and determination to show one’s abilities at the workplace. This eagerness to prove themselves leads to the physicians taking on more work than they can reasonably handle during the working day, and instead of admitting they have taken on too much and look weak, they will work extra hours and take the work home with them. This urge to prove themselves leads to more stress being added on than what is needed, and it can quickly lead to physician burnout.
2. Higher Personal Expectations
In their compulsion to perform their assigned tasks perfectly, physicians start expecting too much of themselves. Instead, these physicians may create goals or expectations for themselves that are difficult to reach.
This idea of being perfect and getting everything done to perfection can make it challenging to get work done and adds unnecessary stress. After a bit, this can lead to burnout because the person is counting on the extra stress and bringing home more work than is required.
3. Neglecting Needs
Due to their over-devotion, affected physicians avoid social gatherings and focus only on their work. Activities they used to engage in are no longer a part of their lives. They find themselves having limited time for social relationships and family functions. They even feel that eating and sleeping are unnecessary activities.
4. Re-evaluating Their Values
Physicians may find themselves reevaluating their values. Everything the person does will revolve around the work they need to do. In the past, they might have had values about spending time with their families or always staying close to their beliefs with their church. Now they have changed things around, and if it has to do with work and the things they need to get done, that is the only value. They will cast their friends and family to the side. They will say that they can get to that at a later time, but the work keeps on coming, and they just never get to the things that they promise. Work starts to take more and more of their time, and it becomes a spiral of forgetting everything else and concentrating on work.
5. Displacement of Conflicts
Even after too much hard work, when the person becomes aware that they are unable to give some output, this leads to the start of a crisis and can be characterized as a physical symptom of physician burnout.
6. Denying Emerging Problems
Physicians may find that they deny any changes in themselves. They find themselves denying any problems by cutting off social relationships and interactions. If they are forced into social situations, they may become more sarcastic and aggressive in their interactions. They will deny changes in themselves and blame work and a lack of time for the changes that others may see in them.
7. Being Devoid of Energy
As a hectic routine has already consumed all of a physician’s energy, they become completely dull physically and emotionally. Over time, your energy levels will go down and down until it is pretty much gone. It is not easy to get the smiles up and the happiness that you need when your energy is gone; people might see you as almost lifeless and dull when they’re around you.
8. Behavioral Changes
Many physicians who are going through physician burnout will find that it is difficult to keep the same behavior they have in the past. They might be worn out from the lack of sleep and the stress going on in their lives; often, this is enough to make them feel different and act out in a way that is more aggressive and irritated even at people who do not deserve it.
Physicians may start withdrawing from everything except work. They will no longer find joy in other activities they used to love. Feelings of hopelessness and confusion can lead to further errors and consequently causes back pain, high blood pressure, and changes in body weight.
The physician going through this burnout will only care about work and let other social interactions be put to one side if you start to back out of the other relationships, which you used to enjoy because you are worried about getting work done all of the time or feel like work comes before anything and everything else, it might be time to get some help before burnout comes.
10. Inner Emptiness
By now, physicians will have been going through many changes in their work and social lives. This can leave one of these social encounters feeling empty inside. To fill this void, some may turn to food, sex, drugs, or alcohol to compensate for that empty feeling. More often than not, the individual will partake in these activities to excess.
Such prolonged stress leads to depression, in which the physician feels hopeless and exhausted. Indifferent to what is going on around them and having no interest in what the future holds, life begins to lose the meaning it once had for them. Suicidal thoughts also arise in their minds.
12. Burnout Syndrome
After going through the other phases, whether the physician experiences all of them or not, burnout is inevitable. Once a physician becomes burned out, it causes a relatively specific physical, mental, and emotional collapse. It leads to an increased risk of gastric and cardiovascular problems as well as possible suicidal behavior.
Physicians who suffer from this stage will get into some real trouble. They are so burned out and need so much help to get out of the cycle that they often will not recognize there is even a problem (denial), or they do not know where to turn to get the help that they need.