The prevalence of burnout among physicians in the United States is at an alarming level. Although practicing medicine may be highly fulfilling and meaningful, U.S. physicians suffer more burnout, manifesting as emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, than other American workers.

In one national study of 27,276 physicians published in 2012, 45.8 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout. Substantial differences in burnout were observed by specialty, with the highest rates at the front line of care access (family medicine, general internal medicine and emergency medicine).

Compared to the general working public, physicians were more likely to have symptoms of burnout (37.9 percent versus 27.8 percent) and to be dissatisfied with work-life balance (40.2 percent versus 23.2 percent). The highest rate of burnout is close to 75 percent among younger clinicians doing their medical residencies.

A more recent survey indicated that more female physicians (55 percent) experienced burnout than their male peers (46 percent). About 40 to 75 percent of obstetricians and gynecologists, of whom 50 percent are female, experience burnout in the form of emotional exhaustion.

Burnout also seems to have adverse personal consequences for physicians, contributing to broken relationships, problematic alcohol use and suicidal ideation.

According to Roger P. Smith, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist who is the assistant dean for graduate medical education and a professor in the Department of Integrated Medical Science in FAU's College of Medicine, burnout is more gradual and insidious than stress, making it more likely to go undetected until it becomes serious.

Smith suggests that the pace of life, its stresses, the impact of multitasking and the unending bombardment of information have spiraled out of control. Adding to the problem, many physicians feel that they are used to working under stress and that admitting such stress is a blow to their self-esteem.

So, how do physicians address their burnout? Smith recommends getting more rest that results in relaxation and renewal, practicing direct communication, problem-solving and time management. He advises that it's important to know individual limits, which may mean simply walking away.

In an earlier publication, researchers suggest the following individual approach:

Take time out or time off

  • Monitor energy and emotional levels
  • Delegate tasks
  • Make use of vacation days

Cultivate an adaptive attitude

  • Appreciate positive events
  • Identify issues that are out of personal control
  • Develop an adaptive attitude
  • Accept each situation as it comes
  • Practice self-compassion

Use resilience tools and techniques

  • Seek mentors, consider a coach, peer exchange groups, or mental health treatment when needed

Increasing physicians' awareness of the symptoms and problems related to stress and burnout and the negative effects on their well-being is often the first step toward improvement. The second step requires addressing the reluctance of physicians to admit that it's true and suggesting ways to alleviate burnout, including implementing self care practices and accepting outside advice or assistance.