The Epidemic of Physician Burnout 

By Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
physician burnout

It took “the worst headache” he’s ever had for Dr. Shawn C. Jones to realize what was happening to him. That combined with a lack of emotionality noticed by Dr. Jones’s wife led to a series of tests that would confirm he was suffering from PTSD-related physician burnout. 

A recent guest on my Illuminare podcast, Dr. Jones’ definition of burnout consists of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and finally a loss of a sense of personal accomplishment. More simply, listlessness, callousness, and meaninglessness are the harbingers of today’s looming physician burnout crisis.

While burnout rates among physicians vary by discipline—51% among critical care workers versus 29% among dermatologists—the average is still a staggering 42% as of 2020, a number that is sure to skyrocket after the year we’ve just endured. This type of persistent professional exhaustion affects not only the individuals enduring it, but also the patients, quality of care delivered, and our healthcare system as a whole.

What we’re witnessing—at its core—is a crisis of compassion. As human beings, we have an enormous capacity for compassion, but the reservoir of compassion we have to call upon isn’t infinite, and physicians are expected to expend much more compassion much more often than most of us. Burnout is what happens when the well runs dry. Depersonalization applies not only to how physicians regard their patients, but is also the wholesale loss of self-compassion. The drive to be perfect and to be better the next time that often defines physicians quickly becomes judgement and self-loathing without self-compassion. 

What’s more, modern healthcare is a monolithic organization that was designed with efficiency in mind. It comes as no surprise to Dr. Jones that physicians lack the support system to receive the treatment they need. It returns to compassion, that uniquely human expression of empathy that cannot be conveyed by something as in-human as an organization. Within such an organization, physicians and healthcare workers are implicitly treated as cogs that make the machine run. 

Meanwhile, little is done to address the actual physician experience. This can lead to disassociation from the very humanity that makes these individuals exceptional healthcare professionals. While the priority will always be on centering the patient experience, healthcare organizations must do a better job of recognizing that their doctors, nurses, and support staff are human beings with human needs that aren’t being met by their current—often desperate—situation. 

In caring for a loved one and working closely with individuals in varying medical disciplines, I have firsthand experience with burnout, and know that all fields are susceptible to this urgent problem. In many ways, the crisis is already here, and has been grinding down our doctors for years. There can be no more waiting for systemic solutions despite many incredible people working towards that goal.  Any healthcare provider who notices the effects of burnout taking over their life and mind can learn much from Dr. Shawn C. Jones. His book, Finding Heart in Art: A Surgeon’s Renaissance Approach To Modern Medical Burnout discusses his experience with work-related burnout and his methods for keeping himself healthy and balanced. 

After experiencing extreme burnout as a physician, Dr. Jones was determined to change his life, to honor his lived experience, and find occasional refuge from the deleterious encroachments of the career he loved so much. Incorporating mindfulness practices like yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques helped him to be more present in the moment. He also found that it’s crucial to nourish not only your body, but your soul as well. For him, that spiritual nosh came in the form of art. The emotionality of an old Renaissance painting would help him come to terms with work-related emotions that were always just simmering beneath the surface. Art became a healthy hobby for Dr. Jones, and he recommends everyone find a similar outlet. Seek out activities that bring you joy, that reconnect you to your humanity, and refill the well of compassion that has been dry too long. 

With demand for autism services always on the rise, patients and providers alike should take heed of this crisis. Many specialists are already stretched thin with no plans to scale down. Of course, it’s advisable for patients to be mindful of the quality of care they are receiving. Yet, we might never know what a little empathy at the right time might do for a provider who is a complex person in their own right navigating their own daily struggles. 

Burnout is never an excuse. The patient experience should remain centered, but a mindset and system that champions the humanity of all stakeholders is possible. Such a culture has transformative potential. Physicians become more engaged and satisfied with their work. Nurses and support staff are buoyed by the value of their contributions. And most importantly, patients would receive the highest quality of care possible from whole and healthy physicians with plenty of compassion to spare.