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Physician Burnout: The Hidden Hurdle

Physician burnout does not have one concise definition, rather, it spans a series of symptoms and conditions experienced by doctors across all professions. Because of the variety in symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish whether physician burnout may be deteriorating to major depressive disorder (MDD). As a result, physicians are hesitant to correctly diagnose themselves and face the stigma that comes with MDD.

What causes physician burnout?

Burnout is caused by long-term unresolved job-related stress that leads to exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed, cynical, detached, and undeserving of success. On the other hand, MDD can be identified by a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, along with feelings of sadness, isolation, and despair for weeks on end. In these cases, it is best to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. So far this year, more than 15,000 physicians have identified as experiencing physician burnout or MDD. 

Both conditions affect men and women equally, so the root of these conditions can be attributed to long hours, workplace environment, and difficult patients. Physicians who work over 71 hours per week are 20% more likely to experience burnout than those who typically work 31-40 hours. 

While burnout is experienced in all fields of medicine, the effect of long hours targets some specialties more than others. A 2019 study conducted by Medscape found that physicians in Critical Care, Neurology, Family Medicine, OB/GYN, and Internal Medicine were among the top specialties affected by these conditions. Doctors practicing in dermatology, plastic surgery, and pathology were the least affected.

How can I cope?

It is important to develop both adaptive and maladaptive coping techniques in order to improve functioning on the job and reduce symptoms. Exercise is one of the most common coping mechanisms, along with talking to family and friends. Other popular activities include taking time for oneself, sleeping, and listening to music.

If you are experiencing any level of burnout or MDD, it is important to get support. Many physicians choose not to seek help because they may not believe their symptoms are strong enough or that they are capable of handling the condition alone. However, many physicians who do seek help from a non-MD therapist or licensed psychiatrist find that it provides them with a space to personalize their coping mechanisms and begin the healing process.