People often say health care professionals are often the worst patients. As health care professionals, we are well versed with what is needed to be healthy, but we struggle, like many other people, to consistently apply these principles.
Some reports indicate that as many as 50 percent of doctors experience symptoms of burnout, including emotional exhaustion, feel less enthusiastic about work, and lack personal accomplishment at some point during their career. In spring 2020, the prevalence of severe burnout was 30 to 40 percent. By spring 2021, rates more than 60 percent were found in Canadian physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals. As health care professionals, allowing ourselves to show weakness is not something that most health care professionals are comfortable doing. According to the CMA National Physician Health Survey, 30 percent of physicians and residents report high levels of burnout — with medical residents, women, and early-career physicians at the greatest risk.
Health care professionals in intensive care settings, COVID-19 units or hospitals, and emergency departments have elevated burnout risk compared to other hospital health care workers. I believe their proximity to the trauma of the COVID 19 pandemic and fears for their physical and mental safety. Not to mention the long works hours, with inhumane conditions.
It isn’t just about the physical demands either, but it is also about the emotional toll. Doctors and nurses are often exposed to patients in far worse health than themselves or their families. As a result of this exposure to suffering, there is an increased risk that these professionals will experience compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can lead to burnout because individuals stop caring for others due to overwhelming feelings of frustration and stress stemming from job-related trauma. It’s difficult enough for family members who lose loved ones every day; imagine how you would feel if you were losing them daily?
Burnout does not discriminate against age, sex, race/ethnicity, career level, education level, or experience. Burnout is a real problem in health care, and we have to get real and discuss this growing crisis. If the “healers” are sick, what happens to the rest of society? Who will these patients come to when they need our health care services?
So, what are some of the early signs of burnout in health care professionals? One of the most overlooked signs of burnout is a lack or complete loss of empathy. When you are experiencing these symptoms, it can be hard for you to connect to your patients in a meaningful way. You might find yourself more judgemental when others get into situations that arguably might have been preventable. Our patients want competence from us, but they also need to know that we care. Loss of empathy will erode the trust in the physician-patient relationship, and this is a serious problem.
An article in the online health publication VeryWellMind lists the following indications that a physician may be suffering from burnout:
Feelings of alienation from work-related activities, including viewing their job as increasingly stressful and frustrating, feeling cynical about their work, or emotionally distancing themselves from their work, are more signs of burnout. This is disheartening, as most physicians have spent a significant amount of time training to become a doctor. When this disconnect happens, physicians might have an identity crisis, as so many physicians associate with who they are with what they do.
Then, there are the physical ailments associated with burnout, such as headaches, stomach aches, or intestinal issues. Emotional exhaustion can include feeling drained, unable to cope, or unmotivated to get work done. This emotional overload can also present in their personal life, and feeling like they are not taking care of those obligations. Having a lack of creativity or not being able to concentrate on work and tasks is another sign.
Physicians and other health care professionals are typically high achievers. The pursuit of excellence and working hard is one of the many great traits that helped these individuals succeed in their careers. Under-performance, including having difficulty doing everyday tasks at work or at home, being unable to concentrate, or experiencing a lack of creativity, are signs of burnout. For high performers, this can be highly problematic.
Performing poorly in the workplace is one of the early signs of burnout. Individuals who are burned out are more likely to make mistakes. Mistakes can lead to medical-legal practice concerns, and the list goes on.
The worst-case scenarios for burnout in health care professionals can lead to job loss, divorce, and even suicide. Fortunately, there are ways we can prevent this from happening or keep it from getting worse. Exercise is essential to help ward off and treat burnout. As we know, exercise keeps your energy levels high, boosts your mood, increases self-confidence and self-esteem, decreases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, helps you sleep better at night. Hence, you wake up refreshed in the morning with more energy [this could be crucial], all while helping you maintain healthy This might be well-known advice but doesn’t mean that it’s common, and consistently practiced advice.
The symptoms of burnout can slowly creep into one’s life, but if one takes the time to reflect regularly, these symptoms can be detected fairly easily. I am happy to take this conversation a step further. Like many chronic illnesses, burnout can be prevented. Still, it takes personal action, changes in the health care system, changes to patient expectations, and increased accountability for their health outcomes.
The issue of health care burnout isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and significant resources to train future health care providers, plus it takes time to develop healthy policies. Then, after the new policies are made, it takes time for this policy to be integrated into the health care culture. I am optimistic that changes are common, and together, we will continue to make life in health care a more sustainable option.
Tomi Mitchell is a family physician.
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