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Physician Self-Care: Wellness Tips to Avoid Burnout

June 12, 2023

Practicing self-care to avoid burnout is an important step for physicians. A career in medicine is uniquely demanding, and physician burnout rates are at a record high.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, physician burnout rates were alarmingly high. The trend has only increased in recent years as workloads soar, staffing and budgets shrink, and personal priorities take a backseat to professional responsibilities.

One recent peer-reviewed study revealed 63% of surveyed physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout at the beginning of 2022. Only 30% felt satisfied with their work-life balance.

Reducing levels of burnout leads to fewer professional errors, higher levels of personal satisfaction, and lower turnover rates in the medical field.

So, how can doctors protect their own well-being?

Preventing Burnout Among Doctors

Jennifer Berliner, MD, is an expert in physician wellness who helps run UPMC's Physician THRIVE. Physician THRIVE is a team of doctors focused on improving professional fulfillment and promoting physician wellness on a systemic level through resources and initiatives.

“You have a group of people who tend to be more on the perfectionist side — not all of us, but many," Dr. Berliner says. “It's really grueling, hard work that we're asking people to do. We're working in a society where health care is extremely expensive, and we're trying to cut costs and provide great care. And there are tons of stressors that come when people feel like they're overworked or work in a less-than-efficient system."

Research shows physicians tend to be more resilient than the general working population in responding to stress and addressing challenges. But burnout rates are substantial among even the most resilient physicians, Dr. Berliner says.

Addressing systemic issues in the clinical care environment and promoting self-care among physicians is critical to preventing burnout among doctors, she adds.

"We really need to set our physicians up for success, giving them resources and tools to prevent these issues from happening rather than treating them after they have them," Dr. Berliner says. “We follow the Stanford (University) model for physician fulfillment, which is a culture of wellness, efficiency of practice, and personal resilience. We're asking how we can best set our doctors up for success to avoid burnout throughout their careers."

Causes and Signs of Physician Burnout

“There are lots of causes and symptoms of burnout, and it can be different for everyone," Dr. Berliner says.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of physician burnout, according to Dr. Berliner, include:

  • Being unhappy going to work.
  • Feeling agitated at work.
  • Not being as cordial or collaborative.
  • Not caring as much as you did before.
  • Starting to see patients as objects.

"It could be anything, but I think the first thing you should think about is if they're experiencing burnout," Dr. Berliner says. " Many times, you can tell its burnout and not depression because they'll get a week off of work and things get better, but when they come back, the issues return. So, it's really related to coming to work."

Physician THRIVE Resources for Doctors

Physician THRIVE programs aim to help physicians avoid burnout. Available resources include:

  • Bolstered access to mental health resources.
  • Efforts to foster camaraderie and trust among physicians.
  • Physician peer coaching.

The committee also created grant programs allowing physicians to apply for funds to implement positive, effective changes within their departments.

"We survey our physicians every other year, which I think is critical," Dr. Berliner says. "We try to get a pulse of how things are going as an organization and hone in on different departments or hospitals to try to understand what their levels of burnout and professional fulfillment are."

Physician THRIVE is part of a group known as the Healthcare Professional Well-being Academic Consortium. They benchmark themselves against other organizations in the consortium to understand how well they're doing and what areas they should focus on.

One initiative, called CURBside, is a concierge service for doctors and their family members. They can receive problem-guided referrals for mental health resources anonymously.

"I think doctors don't always acknowledge or recognize when they need help," Dr. Berliner says. "So, one of the things we set up is mental health working groups to figure out how to access those people who probably need help but don't even recognize it."

Peer Support and Wellness at Work for Physicians

Another Physician THRIVE program called Physicians for Physicians offers confidential peer-to-peer support for doctors struggling with daily stress.

"You can call a number and access another physician any time day or night," Dr. Berliner says. "So, if you have a bad outcome or a bad interaction with a patient or another provider, you can call and debrief with a colleague."

Physician THRIVE also launched a physician peer coaching program. It provides doctors with coaching skills to:

  • Better interact with their colleagues.
  • Gain new perspectives.
  • Understand their own personal and professional goals.

Physicians also are encouraged to sit with coworkers at lunch to form relationships and support networks.

"There's often a lack of opportunity to interact with our colleagues when folks are so busy," Dr. Berliner says.

Self-Care Tips for Physicians

Burnout can be addressed at multiple levels, including institutionally. But physicians can improve burnout by bolstering personal resilience and prioritizing self-care and wellness, according to the American Medical Association.

Some tips to reduce burnout on a personal level are.

  • Stay connected. Strong relationships with family, friends, and colleagues offer a sense of belonging and support. They provide us with a vital outlet in the midst of demanding, sometimes emotionally draining obligations. These relationships often remind us of our values and purpose and keep us tied to the world outside of work. Consider peer support groups, and explore wellness offerings within your medical community.
  • Stay focused. Remind yourself often of why you practice medicine and what motivates you to keep going. Consider your levels of professional and personal fulfillment, and explore ways to improve both in order to stay satisfied.
  • Stay happy. Do things you love outside of work. Cultivate hobbies new and old, and make time to travel, garden, laugh with friends, and experience joy. This is one of the best things you can do for yourself, your loved ones, and your patients.
  • Stay healthy. Whether it's your physical, mental, or emotional health, nurture your own wellness as often as possible. It's easy to feel like a career in medicine rewards self-neglect. But inadequate nutrition, hydration, sleep, and physical activity can expedite burnout. Don't be ashamed to ask for professional help or to lean on family, friends, or colleagues for support.
  • Stay organized. Make an effort to better systemize your personal and professional responsibilities to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Set aside time to unload everything you need and want to do in a schedule. Make sure to include how long each task is expected to take. Include personal obligations, health needs, and hobbies like Little League games, exercise, meals, and downtime. This practice allows you to pick your priorities and decide what to cut if needed.

“The most important thing is recognizing your burnout, setting aside time for yourself, and caring for yourself, no matter what," Dr. Berliner says. " Patients will always be there, and the work will always be there.

"I think figuring out what helps you relax, unwind, and enjoy is really important. And I think sharing your experience and forming relationships at work is important. My advice would be to seek help and talk to people you trust."

For more information on Physician THRIVE at UPMC, visit our website.