Simple Tools to Attack Symptoms of Burnout

When most people go to the doctor, they have their own ailments on their mind and don’t necessarily think about how their physician is doing. However, doctors also have stress and are human too. A study published in Medscape found that burnout among physicians increased from 40% in 2013 to 51% in 2017. It is increasingly accepted that a healthcare system burning out physicians is bad for our doctors as well as the patients they treat. In this article, we’re going to outline a few reasons why physician burnout is becoming an epidemic, and what individuals in the system can do about it.

Symptoms of Burnout

There are many signs that might indicate burnout, such as:

  • fatigue

  • situational sadness

  • decreased sleep

  • increased stress and anger

  • decreased job satisfaction

  • decrease in connection with patients

  • avoiding friends and family

Even though symptoms are pervasive among doctors, they are well trained in managing and hiding the symptoms. The culture of “hiding the pain” among physicians can make things worse and even very difficult to diagnose. To make it even more complex, burnout is not equal to poor performance. The intense training has some benefits. Many doctors are not aware of the signs or symptoms, or that there are more effective ways to manage the challenges of being a doctor.  They don’t seek help, and there is not much offered to help. These negatives are a sort of catch 22.


Equipping Doctors with the Tools They Need

Historically, burnout has not been a prominent topic in medical school. As a result, many physicians find themselves unequipped to properly deal with burnout when it arises. We need to start talking openly about these issues and developing programs that can equip doctors with the tools they need to fight burnout. This will include integration of resilience skills into medical school curricula, as well as on-the-job programs available to physicians to focus on their own wellness.

Here are just a few simple tools or actions we have identified as helpful, including:

  • Improved Sleep Hygiene - Bring increased awareness to your sleep hygiene. We learned from sleep expert, Dominic Munafo, MD, many ways to improve our sleep. And more importantly, as physicians, we learned ways to increase our alertness without impacting our ability when we do have a chance to recover. Learn more on the SurgeonMasters Podcast, Sleep Hygiene 1! and Sleep Hygiene 2!

  • Engaging Your Passion - Find a way to connect with your passion. Whether you are a young doctor starting your practice or a veteran hardened by years of battle scars, it is critical to tap into our inner motivations and drive. A great example of a surgeon engaging their passion for patient care is Kristin Long, MD, who frequently travels abroad on medical mission trips to perform medical procedures. While the work is difficult and long, the purpose in the work brings fulfilment instead of exhaustion that mundane tasks like EHR bring. Learn more about Kristin Long’s humanitarian trips by clicking here.  

  • Connecting with Others - Connecting with peers who are facing or have faced similar circumstances can be incredibly helpful. The everyday stressors of being a physician are much different from the stressors of other careers. That’s why it’s important to connect with other like-minded physicians who are experiencing the same things you are. Talk about the stresses (as well as the joys) of life as a surgeon, and support each other through mutual understanding.  

Working Towards Solutions

If you are a surgeon experiencing the signs and symptoms of burnout, it’s important that you take proactive steps for your own well-being. SurgeonMasters offers educational tips, webinars, podcasts, as well as live-meetups – all with the express goal of educating surgeons on burnout and wellness. We are a group of like-minded surgeons who share knowledge in the hopes of building thriving, lifestyle-friendly practices. Reach out to us today to learn more!


Medscape Lifestyle Report 2017

Sick as a Doc? Doctors Are Burning Out — and It's Serious


Purpose, Fulfillment and Shared Goals

In this article, I would like to review a recent blog written by SurgeonMasters contributor Kristin Long, MD, FACS. Dr. Long recently returned from a two week surgical mission trip to rural western Kenya, where she and her team performed 62 surgical procedures and treated upwards of 475 patients in 4 clinical days. Upon her return she had many insights into the overwhelming nature of such trips and what she had to deal with when she got back to her job.

Exhaustion & Emotional Fulfillment

“Thinking back on the incredible levels of stress and exhaustion we all endured, I’m even more amazed by the scope and quality of work we were able to accomplish,” Dr. Long writes. “Within a few short days of returning, I found myself digging through a backlogged email inbox, EMR in basket, and life in general.  Among my favorites were the administrative email noting that I had one week in which to complete my “respiratory fit testing” or my hospital privileges would be revoked, as well as a reminder of a delinquency for the annual online HIPAA training module.”

When our hard and exhausting work appears to have purpose, we are fulfilled emotionally, even though we may be drained mentally and physically (as well as emotionally). The overall experience is POSITIVE!

In contrast, her "productive" work getting caught up on emails, EMR in-basket, and administrative tasks? These activities were lacking in purpose. The results were almost completely a drain or feeling of "empty" when the tasks were completed.

When the purpose is trivial to us, it is not fulfilling. These burdens are typically not about providing care to patients. There may be a purpose to those who created the rule or policy. However, the presentation as mandatory or that we are delinquent immediately puts us on the defensive. Often the training is common sense, and little effort is placed on the value of our time and goals. This is counterproductive to decreasing burnout and creating wellness. In fact, it creates disillusionment. 

Receiving Inspiration Through Shared Goals

“We came together, working for a common goal, and let that guide us,” Dr. Long remembers of the mission in Keyna.  “Everyone stayed late, everyone checked in on one another, and NO ONE uttered the phrase “that’s not my job.” The spirit of camaraderie and dedication was enough to remind each of us why we went into health CARE in the first place.” 

What Dr. Long describes here is her Passion for Performance Improvement. It’s easy to lose sight of this during our day to day work as surgeons. Sometimes we need to take a step back and re-examine our situation, and the world at large to find our center again and continue doing the important work that we do.

At SurgeonMasters, our goal is to help physicians create sustainable and lifestyle-friendly practices. We are a collective of like-minded surgeons offering educational resources (articles, podcasts, webinars and more) to help physicians prevent burnout and improve well-being.


The original article, “What If We Were Friends?” was published September 6th, 2018 in

Author Bio

Kristin Long, MD, FACS is an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrine Surgery and the Division of General Surgery in the Department of Surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She specializes in treating both benign and malignant disease of the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands. She is an active member of several specialty societies, including the American College of Surgeons, the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons, and the Association for Academic Surgery. Dr. Long is particularly interested in the surgical treatment and management of thyroid carcinoma and hereditary endocrine disorders such as Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia syndromes. She is also interested in global surgery, particularly in developing countries, and improving access to specialized care for patients with unique endocrine disorders.

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