5 Helpful Strategies for Preventing Physician Burnout

You know it, we know it, the entire world knows it. Even if you absolutely love your job, there’s no denying that being a physician can be one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Nearly 90 percent of physicians admit to feeling stressed throughout the course of a day, and another 54 percent admit to exhibiting at least one symptom of burnout. With these statistics in mind, it’s vital that you develop a routine that counteracts the pressure and anxiety that come with great responsibility, especially when that stress comes from the patients who may be less than amiable.

Try these five solutions for avoiding burnout before they turn your job from something you love into something you dread.

1. Listen to Your Own Advice

What’s the number-one recommendation you give to a patient who’s suffering from stress? Learn to take better care of yourself. This means eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, less than 5 percent of adults in America get at least 30 minutes of physical activity in any given day. And as a doctor, you can’t help your patients if you can’t help yourself. A physician who is in prime physical health and who is well-rested is far less likely to give in to the stresses of a bad day or to a patient who’s impossible to please.

2. Set Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries are necessary in every area of life. Boundaries let other people know what sort of behaviors will and won’t be tolerated. They protect both the person who sets them and anyone who might otherwise be tempted to violate them.

As a physician, setting a healthy boundary might include refusing to spread yourself too thin. It could mean referring patients to colleagues when your caseload is full, or it could mean taking a step back from all the exorbitant hours you typically work and enjoying a day off here or there. It could mean taking an assertive stance with a difficult patient and refusing to cave into unreasonable requests.

3. Resist the Urge to Internalize

It’s your responsibility to treat difficult patients to the best of your ability without letting them rattle you to the point where your work suffers. Resist the urge to internalize any harsh treatment at the hands of an abusive patient because there are other patients waiting who need you at your best. Meditate. Practice yoga. Whip up a raw-fruit smoothie. Do whatever you need to do to de-stress throughout your day so that you’re able to keep performing at optimum levels, and so that you can continue to love your job. Don’t let one (or even ten) bad patient interactions sour you on your chosen profession.

4. Change Your Approach

In the now-famous words of Dr. William Osler, the first Physician in Chief at Johns Hopkins and a recognized expert on bedside manner, “It’s much more important to know what sort of patient has a disease than to know what kind of a disease a patient has.” Dr. Osler understood that, in order to do the best job possible in treating a patient, a physician first had to know what sort of patient he was treating.

The same holds true today. When you find yourself stuck in a roundabout with a difficult patient, and you feel the stress building, consider a different approach. Not all patients are created equal, and while it could be an underlying cause that’s to blame for the level of difficulty, it could also be your handling technique.

5. Embrace Your Limitations

You have limitations and there’s no shame in admitting that. You can’t function properly when sleep-deprived for days on end. You can’t physically do the work of five people. You can’t avoid negative people entirely. It’s not in your job description. You’re going to have bad days and encounters that shake you to your core. Recognize that the only part of this that you can control is your reaction to it, and then move on.

Dr. Mamta Gautam, writing for the American Medical Association, recommends recognizing what you can and can’t control about any given situation. “We focus on controlling and changing things around us, and from that perspective, appropriately, we feel we have no control. The only factor we control is us — our thoughts, feelings, expectations, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. We must learn to identify what part of the situation is under our control, and focus on that.”

Embrace your humanness. Accept your limitations, and resist the urge to beat yourself up because you’re not made of metal. Realizing that you’re only human is a viable first step in lowering your stress levels. As a physician, you deal daily with people and situations that would destroy a lesser man or woman. Admit to yourself that giving your all is good enough, and then go forward in peace.

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