The Top 8 Factors that Cause Physician Burnout


Burnout is a pervasive -- and sometimes even deadly -- problem among physicians. According to a Mayo Clinic and American Medical Association study published in late 2015, the rates of physician burnout increased from 2011 to 2014, with more than half of American physicians reporting professional burnout by 2014. Here's a look at the top eight factors that contribute to this disturbing trend:

A Need for Secrecy

Many physicians don't seek help for depression, anxiety or fatigue -- all of which can contribute to burnout, or be symptoms of it -- because most states require physicians to report even the most minor mental health-related diagnosis to their licensing board. This leads physicians to worry that admitting to even minor depression or anxiety may lead to restrictions on their license.

[RELATED: Find out everything you need to know about physician burnout and promoting well-being in your institution.]

Chaotic Work Environment

A chaotic work environment can contribute enormously to burnout rates, so it should come as no surprise that physicians in the emergency department report the highest rate of burnout -- more than 70 percent. But other specialties aren't far behind, and even outside the emergency room, the more subtle forms of ongoing chaos -- like unpredictable work hours or unreliable staffing -- can dial up a physician's risk of burnout.

Too Much Work

Sometimes the simple obstacle of having too much work to accomplish in too short a time can lead physicians to the point of burnout. A 2014 study from the Physicians Foundation found that more than 80 percent of physicians were so busy that they couldn't take on new patients.

An Interrupted Personal Life

No matter their specialty, physicians are trained to deal with high-stress, high-consequence decisions every day. Ideally, they're also trained to leave that stress at work. But when work impinges repeatedly on their personal life -- for example, with frequent schedule changes, emergency cases or a simple work overload that can't be finished during office hours -- the stage is set for burnout.

Too Many Bureaucratic Tasks

Most physicians enter their fields with the hope of improving their patients' lives. Finding themselves saddled with a litany of bureaucratic tasks instead leaves them saddled with duties that not only fall outside their training, but keep them from achieving what brought them to medicine in the first place. Increased computerization is a particular complaint for many physician because they say it decreases their opportunities for face time with patients.

Not Enough Money

Although the public often idealizes physicians as having plenty of money and free time, they're not immune to financial pressure. In a 2015 survey published by Medscape, more than 50 percent of physicians across 26 specialties reported having insufficient savings or too much debt.

Unhealthy Habits

A notable proportion of physicians who report feeling burned out also report other indicators of poor physical health, including being overweight and not getting enough exercise. It's not entirely clear whether these health indicators contribute to the burnout or result from it, but practices like exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and maintaining a healthy body weight are all known to help manage stress.

Being the Emotional Buffer

Often, physicians are called upon to function as an emotional buffer for their patients, whether they're protecting the patient from a chaotic office environment or from the emotional impact of a difficult diagnosis. That is a normal part of any practice that involves face-to-face, one-on-one encounters -- but it's also a recipe for burnout if the physician, in turn, is not receiving the support he needs.

If you are immersed in the practice environment yourself or, by contrast, not intimately familiar with it, an objective tool like the well-being index can help gauge whether these and other factors in your work environment are putting you or your physicians at risk for burnout.


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