The Rounds Survey: 75% of Canadian Physicians Have Dealt With “Physician Burnout”

Written By The Rounds

During a time like the COVID-19 pandemic, we see the topic of physician burnout as an important one to address. Although physicians are commonly known to be some of the most hard-working and dedicated people, they too suffer from the effects of burnout throughout their careers. Even our Canadian physicians on The Rounds agreed that burnout is something that they have been impacted by. With over 75% of them facing this extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, they discuss the strategies they have used to combat the feeling of being burnt out. 

What is burnout?

The word burnout can mean different things to everyone and is something that is not easily defined. However, Social Psychologist, Christina Maslach and her colleagues at the University of San Francisco summed up this word as “an erosion of the soul caused by a deterioration of one’s values, dignity, spirit, and will.” Along with this, they also developed the three most common symptoms to look for when determining if a physician is facing burnout. 

  • Exhaustion: The physician’s physical and emotional energy levels are extremely low and in a downward spiral.
  • Depersonalization: Physicians may not be emotionally available for their patients because their emotional energy is so low. This could be accompanied by sarcasm and the need to vent about your patients or your job to someone. 
  • Lack of efficacy: A physician may begin to doubt the meaning and quality of their work and worry that they will make a mistake if things don’t get better soon.

This definition and the three symptoms described above are not the only things that classify physician burnout. Many signs and symptoms are not easy to recognize which makes it difficult to determine that burnout is the root cause of their feelings and actions. 

One of the most difficult parts about burnout is being able to recognize when it is happening to you. A physician may feel like they are in “survival mode” while at work and could just consider the way they are feeling like “normal”. In a position like that of a physician, there is room for challenge and enjoyment within your practice. If you find yourself wondering if you can make it through the day or consistently count down the hours until the day is done, this may be a sign that you are feeling the impact of burnout.

Survey results 

When our members were asked the question “have you felt the impact of physician burnout in your career?” The results showed an overwhelming yes, physicians have dealt with burnout at one point. Approximately 75% of our Canadian physician members on our network agree that burnout is something they have experienced and were keen to share some of their self-care tips about how they became stronger after realizing the way they felt was not normal. 

Example of a pie chart that represents the number of Canadian physicians that have felt the impact of physician burnout during their career.

How to prevent burnout 

The symptoms of burnout as listed above are not ones that should be taken lightly. Burnout not only impacts the physician, but it can lead to the destruction of professional behaviour at work and increase relationship difficulties at home. With a lack of empathy and compassion that are displayed with burnout, patient outcomes may become worse. Before things escalate, finding ways to prevent the onset of signs and symptoms may help a physician avoid reaching the point of burnout. 

5 tips to prevent or mitigate burnout according to UNC Health Care:

  • Engage in regular exercise and/or other restorative activities: Physical exercise has a large evidence base for decreasing stress and improving emotional well-being. It is critical to find time for regular exercise and make it a top priority.
  • Spend time with friends and family: Emotional connections and support from others are critical aspects of self-care. It is important to schedule time with others so you can guarantee that you have interactions with people that care about you. 
  • Identify the things you can and can’t control at work: Try to systemically and thoughtfully determine the things you can control and the things that are completely out of your control. Not investing your time and energy in the things you can’t control will make you happier at work.  
  • Monitor your inner emotional energy barometer and know when you are running on empty: It is important to check in on your personal barometer and assess how you are feeling each week. Knowing when to refuel and take a few days off will help you avoid burnout.   
  • Look for warning signs of burnout and get professional help when needed: Ignoring warning signs of burnout can lead to depression, substance abuse/dependence and other impaired relationships. Increased mood lability, tearfulness, changes in appetite and/or sleep are all warning signs of burnout and may require you to ask for help. 

Tips from our members

One member of our network has found that building time into their days and weeks for activities that they enjoy has had a positive impact on their work and personal life. These activities will be different for everyone but it is important to schedule a time for things like sports, music, writing, painting, volunteering, mindfulness exercises or anything that brings you joy and prevents stress. 

Another member emphasized the importance of being self-aware. When they are feeling impatient with constraints and pressures, they recognize the early signs of anger within themselves which in turn impact how they relate to others. They took their irritability as an early warning sign and took the self-care steps listed above to prevent them from burnout. 

This same physician also highlighted the importance of having a trusted person – like a caring partner or friend – to debrief their issues with and provide affirmation based on what they were feeling. Being able to vent out the negative energy in a constructive way and accept and deflate the understandable frustrations is an important tool to use. 

Although the feelings associated with burnout may feel isolating, the data above shows that burnout is a common issue that impacts physicians. Addressing physician burnout is just one step in the right direction to normalize the extreme physical and emotional exhaustion that can come with being a physician in today’s world.    

Remember, you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.