Burnout continues to plague physicians at every stage of their careers. In the recent joint study from MGMA and JPS, 65% of physicians reported experiencing burnout this year — that’s up from 61% in 2021. Among those experiencing burnout, 75% said their burnout was worse this year than the year prior. A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings (and reported on by the New York Times) found strikingly similar numbers. In the study, 63% of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout. The study and resulting report stressed the dramatic increase in burnout seen in the past two years.
The factors contributing to burnout are largely institutional — excessive administrative tasks, misalignment of personal values and corporate expectations, and an overburdened system that demands unrealistic productivity from physicians and staff. The burnout epidemic stems from these organizational issues, yet its impact on the individual physician’s mental health can make it feel like a personal weakness to overcome.
Let’s be clear. Physician burnout is NOT a personal weakness. It is a systemic problem that needs to be continually addressed at the industry and organizational levels in order to see the number of physicians experiencing burnout decrease. That said, there are things individuals can do to combat the negative impact of physician burnout on one’s mental health. Going into the New Year is the perfect time to revisit those actions and set goals, or resolutions, that will protect your mental health now and into the future.
Physician Mental Health Resolution #1: Protect Your Time Off
A healthy work-life balance is essential for good mental health. For this reason, it’s important for physicians to carve out time away from work to be present with family or engage in personal activities and interests. However you choose to spend time away from work, prioritize and protect it.
Dike Drummond, MD, CEO, and founder of TheHappyMD.com, has devoted his career to the subject of physician work-life balance. He insists that a healthy work-life balance begins with your calendar. Just as you schedule patient appointments and department meetings on a calendar, you should also have a calendar where you schedule time for yourself, time with your kids, and dates with your partner. So decide today to start scheduling your time off on a 2023 calendar and give it the same respect you give your professional schedule.
Physician Mental Health Resolution #2: Do Something Physical Every Day
We already know exercise has physical health benefits, but moving your body is good for mental health too. Evidence suggests physical activity releases feel-good endorphins that enhance your sense of well-being. It also provides a break from the day’s stressors and lets you get your mind off work. The activity doesn’t have to involve a rigorous workout at the gym. A brisk, 15-minute walk around the campus or block would be a good start. Find a colleague to join you for added benefit. (Research shows workplace friendships are also good for your mental health!)
Physician Mental Health Resolution #3: Practice Gratitude
No matter your profession or place in the world, starting the day by noticing and appreciating the people, places, and things that improve your life positively impacts mental health. This doesn’t mean just having a general awareness of your privilege or appreciation for your home and family. With this resolution, decide to set aside five or ten minutes every day to notice and preferably write down some specific things you are grateful for. Research suggests that practicing gratitude for just a few minutes daily will train your brain to notice and appreciate more frequently, ultimately bringing a more positive and healthy outlook to your daily life.
Physician Mental Health Resolution #4: Make Your Voice Heard
In the aforementioned joint study from MGMA and JPS, one notable data point was the importance physicians place on two-way communication with management. This was the most important factor contributing to physician job satisfaction. When this communication is lacking, burnout often follows as physicians feel unheard and ineffective at work.
Resolve to proactively improve communication with management by finding ways to make your voice heard. Request one-on-one meetings and bring an agenda to each one. Regularly loop your manager into the issues you are facing and request feedback. Raise your hand for opportunities to join committees and panels that allow physicians to provide input. Start a group focused on mitigating burnout and bring management into the conversation with ideas and proposals for changes that can improve circumstances.
The New Year presents a fresh opportunity to focus on your mental health and prioritize work-life balance. Instead of vaguely promising to “do better” this year, make specific resolutions such as the ones listed here to help you make progress toward the broader goal of wellness.