All professions experience varying degrees of burnout. Physicians and health professionals, who may treat symptoms of burnout in their patients, are not immune to job burnout and depression. In its latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization has officially classified workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is a special type of work-related stress – a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. Burnout is generally marked by exhaustion, detachment from the job, cynicism, and a depreciating level of accomplishment and fulfillment.

Recent reports have labeled physician burnout in the US as a full-blown catastrophe, indicating that the prevalence of physician burnout has reached “critical levels.” The report, titled A Crisis in Health Care: A Call to Action on Physician Burnout, was produced by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Global Health Institute, Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association. The full report can be found here.

Avoiding possible points of frustration and disappointment before the job starts is a good proactive step. For example, when a doctor discovers that he/she is being paid less than another physician performing the exact same job, he/she can feel deflated, which impacts morale.

Another common scenario is for newly hired doctors to be told verbally that they will be working at the “metro” office for their new employer. However, their contract is worded such that they are legally obligated to work at whichever employer location the employer sees fit. This is often at the sole discretion of the employer. The physician may be completely unaware that their primary work location address should be locked down in writing within their contract. This could prevent them from working at a remote clinic three to four days a week across a couple counties. This unplanned commute could lead to a low level of job satisfaction for the physician, regardless of the high quality of care they are providing to their patients. 

These are merely examples of the types of obstacles physicians face in their career, many of which can be avoided on the frontend. Ensuring that unfavorable job features are weeded out before the start date can lead to higher career satisfaction, and lessen the impact of other burnout symptoms.

The American Medical Association found that nearly 60 percent of physicians blame “too many bureaucratic tasks,” such as charting and paperwork, as the leading cause of burnout. Spending too many hours at work (34 percent) was also a leading cause of burnout with 48 percent of physicians working 51–60 hours each week.

Although reports of burnout at high levels are not necessarily new or surprising, the level of urgency being communicated has reached a peak. Also new is the recommended approach to handling this issue, with many experts advocating for the appointment of “Chief Wellness Officers” at every health care institution. The urgency for action lies in the fact that as physician well-being deteriorates, so does their ability to provide quality patient care.

Alain Chaoui, MD, President of the Massachusetts Medical Society and one of the report’s authors said: “The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician well-being is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients….We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

Job satisfaction is important for emotional and physical health for everyone. A great start to any position will lead to a happier career and will help curb the burnout effect. The best approach to handling the burnout crisis is up for debate, but one thing is clear: burnout is a serious and urgent issue for many professionals, including physicians.

Leigh Ann O’Neill is chief executive officer of Lauth O’Neill Physician Agency.

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