An Overview of Physician Burnout

Posted on: April 21, 2020


Have you ever felt overwhelmed just thinking about all the things you need to get done at work? Like everything you do is not enough? If so, you may be experiencing symptoms of physician burnout. Physician burnout affects many healthcare providers; with a recent report by Medscape that found 44 percent of physicians are feeling burnt out. They used a sample size of 15,069 providers across 29+ different specialties in the field to determine the effects and results of burnout on providers.

Since 1970, when burnout was first mentioned in scientific literature, it has been a well-documented subject. As of 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared it a major issue. Since that time, the World Health Organization (WHO) has listed burnout in its International Classification of Diseases.

Unfortunately, even with all the documentation and studies, burnout is still a prevalent issue amongst all career fields; with healthcare providers experiencing the most burnout. This article will look into the causes of burnout, as well as the scope, and how to mitigate these feelings when you feel burnout creeping up.

Diving into Burnout

Physician burnout is - in essence - the results of long-term job stress. This stress will manifest itself into a combination of cynicism, exhaustion, and the perceived inefficiency. Professional burnout symptoms are overall like those of post-traumatic stress disorder. You may also feel chronic irritability, insomnia, night terrors associated with work, the avoidance of patients, intrusive thoughts, angry outbursts, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, or hypervigilance.

Burnout is a serious issue that can begin affecting your personal life, as well as those around you, if left untreated. Providers commonly talk about an increase in drinking, less physical activity, strenuous family lives, medical issues, etc. On the bright side, a majority of physicians who are experiencing burnout do not consider suicide. With that said, if this issue is left unaddressed, it can lead to that as well.

The Scope of Burnout

Healthcare providers are at higher risk of burnout than other professions. Specifically, providers that work in a high-stress environment (i.e. emergency care, surgery, critical care) are more likely to experience burnout when compared to someone in preventative care. Burnout is induced by various job tasks that can be overwhelming when done too frequently or over a long time. Medscape found that a high amount of bureaucratic duties (eg. paperwork, charting), as well as long hours, were the leading causes of burnout in their study.

If healthcare providers are experiencing burnout, how does this look in terms of productivity and spending? While the Medscape study shows that 47 percent of providers don’t let their mental health affect their work, there is plenty of evidence to corroborate the loss of money with rates of burnout. Sadly, information on how burnout affects the costs of the healthcare industry in the US has not been studied as intensely when compared to other nations.

Luckily for us, a Harvard Business assistant professor, Joel Goh, teamed up with two Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos A. Zenios. The paper titled The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States helps elucidate the outcomes of work-related stress in the U.S. The most notable finding was that at least 120,000 deaths per year are in part due to work-related stress. They also discovered that the U.S. is spending between five and eight percent annually on healthcare costs that may be attributed to how companies manage their work forces. While this percentage looks like a low number at first glance, it represents between $125 to $190 billion in spending to help burnout and work-related stress.

How to Prevent Burnout

Burnout is an issue that both the individual, as well as their company, can work towards preventing. The Medscape study showed that many providers have taken positive coping strategies to help with their burnout. Exercise and discussing your stress with family/friends can do wonders for your mental and physical state. If you can, try reducing your hours, or speak to your supervisors and see if you can agree on how to manage workload. You may also visit a mental health professional if you’re experiencing worsening or severe symptoms of burnout.

As for companies, you can increase positive feedback to your providers, as well as involving them with decision making to ensure everyone can have shared values and goals, or close to it. Programs that deal with wellness and stress-related activities can also benefit your providers. A study by JAMA Internal Medicine found that “organization-led interventions were more likely to lead to reductions in burnout” when compared to physician-led ones.

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About Dr. Melissa DeCapua, DNP, PMHNP

Dr. Melissa DeCapua is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner who graduated from Vanderbilt University. Her background is in child and adolescent psychiatry as well as psychosomatic medicine, and she currently works as a researcher Microsoft. She is a strong advocate for empowering nurses, and she fiercely believes that nurses should play a pivotal role in shaping modern healthcare. For more information, visit and follow her on Twitter @melissadecapua.

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