Creating Balance and Avoiding Burnout During Residency

Being a doctor is a rewarding, empowering career; you literally save lives. And yet, the stress that comes along with being a doctor can turn “empowering” into “overpowering,” resulting in physician burnout. Sadly, about 30% of young physicians suffer from depression or depressive symptoms, and every year in the United States, roughly 400 physicians commit suicide.

These are sobering statistics, and I hope that you haven’t been personally touched by this degree of stress. But what if you have? Here are four tips to help you create balance and overcome symptoms of burnout.

1.  Recognize the signs of burnout early on

The first step is awareness. Luckily, Mark Linzer, MD, Director of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, has studied physician burnout for the last ten years and identified several common contributing factors.

According to Linzer, doctors may experience burnout if they are consistently under high stress, if they work in a chaotic environment that compromises quality of care, or if they differ from their bosses in values or patient care philosophy.

Definitions of burnout frequently highlight three symptoms:

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization, resulting in trouble connecting with patients
  3. Diminished confidence in one’s own skills, accomplishments, or efficacy

By tuning into these factors and warning signs, you can get an early start on countering burnout.

2.  Support your physical health

It’s no wonder that many doctors find themselves grabbing an unhealthy snack or forgoing their exercise routine—physicians are insanely busy. But while scheduling time for exercise and healthy meal-planning is difficult, regular exercise has extensive health benefits.

When we exercise, we are typically able to distract ourselves from stress, and exercise also provides an opportunity to catch up on neglected passions. Listen to a favorite playlist while running, catch up with a must-see television show on the elliptical machine, or even socialize with friends in a kickboxing class. An hour of exercise can restore balance not only to our minds, but also to our bodies. And even if you can’t squeeze in an entire hour, even a short 10-20 minute walk can get your blood pumping and help clear your mind.

3.  Embrace your support system

One of the first things to go when we feel stretched thin is time with friends. However, leaning on the supportive individuals we have and seeking out new supports is vital to easing anxiety. Spend quality time with your spouse or significant other. Participate in activities that have nothing to do with work, like exploring a new hobby or volunteering. Talk with your friends and loved ones about your stressors, and allow them to help you make a plan. You do not need to bear the weight of stress alone.

Additionally, mental help professionals are trained to help you manage your anxiety. They can provide additional support and additional solutions to help you avoid burnout.

4.  Cultivate mindfulness

Tending to the sick and suffering is hard enough without being accompanied by worry, anxiety and resentment. But mindfulness practices help you be present in the here and now and separates those normal tasks of the job from the negative emotions associated with burnout.

While mindfulness is often associated with meditation, mindfulness experts also provide simple strategies to perform on the job, at moments of high stress, or even before entering a stressful situation. Just think—you could stop your anxiety before it even starts.

Some useful resources are Real Simple magazine, which offers monthly breathing exercises in its print edition, and The Happy MD, which offers a One Minute Mindfulness Online Training geared specifically toward physicians.

By making these changes, you can rediscover your passion for medicine and your peace of mind. And most importantly, by avoiding burnout, you can continue having a long, fulfilling career in medicine.