Recognizing Physician Burnout and What To Do About It

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Last month, Dr. Carol Pak-Teng opened up to the New York Post about her experience of burnout and depression as a resident. She also recounts the response of her colleagues when another resident jumped to her death from a building in Manhattan.

“The other residents weren’t even that shocked,” she tells The Post, “because so many of us have had that thought.”

The pressures and stress of practicing medicine in America today are palpable. Physicians across the country are experiencing symptoms of burnout at epidemic rates. It is vital that doctors like Dr. Pak-Teng continue to be vocal about the realities facing so many practicing clinicians. We must also learn to recognize and respond to warning signs among fellow physicians.

Here are a few ways to recognize signs of burnout.

Connect with your colleagues on a human level every day. This is simple. Make eye-contact. Ask how they’re doing. Inquire about their interests or hobbies. Offer a kind word or a smile.

Connecting in this way on a regular basis attunes us to warning signs that something is off. When we wake up to each other’s humanity, we are better equipped to pay attention and to be able to tell if and when one of our colleagues needs help.

This sort of communication, however simple, also gives us better insight into the natural state of our coworkers. We are better able to notice changes in demeanor.

Beware of despair. Each of us went into medicine with the belief that we could make a difference. When colleagues become cynical and certain that their presence doesn’t matter, consider this a big, flashing warning sign.

Take the temperature. What is the atmosphere of your workplace like? Are people generally positive or is there a sense of anonymity and fatigue? Getting a read on the overall culture of your work environment can be a good step in determining if anything can be done on an institutional level to make clinical practice healthier for the physicians at work.

When you recognize that a colleague is suffering, how can you respond?

Humanity, kindness, empathy. These go a long way. You don’t have to solve the problem. Outside of ensuring that your fellow physicians know what resources are available to them, a great step is treating the person you’re concerned about with respect and kindness.

Listen. Our goal is to make sure those suffering from burnout and depression know that they aren’t alone. The best way to do this is to listen to their struggles. Let them know that you are with them and that you hear them.

Foster a healthy environment at work, one in which talking about mental health and seeking help is not seen as a deficiency.

Encourage your colleagues to save notes of thanks and praise. These reminders of accomplishments and moments of love can be invaluable to return to when feelings of worthlessness threaten to overtake us.

There is life on the other side of burnout and depression. There is a way to practice medicine that is not detrimental to the health and wellbeing of those of us who have dedicated our lives to it. While we work to correct a flawed system, we must support and look out for our fellow physicians, our residents, and our medical students.

You are not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

Available 24 hours every day

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Tracy Sanson