The Burnt-Out Case: Is It Your Doctor?

We often hear of job burnout, and how people can become far less effective, unhappy and how they eventually just walk away from their job in response to intense job dissatisfaction. We probably even know a few people like that. A new study suggests one person you may know who suffers from job burnout could be your doctor.

A study published from the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined the occurrence of job burnout among physicians in the United States. The findings were less than encouraging. Almost 50 percent of physicians indicated at least one symptom of burnout.

ER Doctors Most Likely to Report Burnout Symptoms

Perhaps the most problematic finding of the report was that emergency medicine doctors, those staffing the emergency departments, who must handle the most time sensitive cases, report symptoms of burnout at rates greater than 60 percent.

This is understandable, given the relentless demands of an emergency department practice, where there is always one more patient that is in critical need of immediate attention.

Studies have shown that jobs that have unrelenting demands and provide individuals with little autonomy often have higher stress than what jobs that are commonly thought of as "high stress," like those of upper management of large corporations.

An ER doctor has little control over his or her workload and the critical nature of many of the patients; they demand immediate attention and produce a high degree of stress. A doctor may experience many of the symptoms of occupational burnout, such as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, depression and low satisfaction with work-life balance.

Outside the emergency department, as much of the medical practice has become more "industrialized" with doctors being required to see more patients in less time, all doctors can lose the sense of having real contact with individual patients.

Many, Many Hours Worked

In addition to become exhausted and depersonalized with the practice of assembly line medicine, the study finds that 63.4 percent of doctors work more than 50 hours per week, with 7 percent indicating they work more than 80 hours a week.

Not only does this leave doctors physically exhausted in their practice, more likely to miss a diagnosis or fail to recognize important symptom in a patient, but it intrudes on their private lives, diminishing their inability to achieve a positive work-life balance.

No one would want an exhausted, depressed, burnt-out physician making critical health care decisions, but we appear to have developed a system that will deliver exactly that outcome.

The report notes that a full understanding of the problem, and more important, what can be done to improve the situation, still waits. The study points out that existing programs and procedures that have been put into place to deal with burnout, at best, treat only individual cases, and that little has been done to deal with the broader, occupational burnout that has become systemic in American healthcare.