The Positive Spin on Dealing with Physician Burnout

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How to Deal With Physician Burnout

At some point in your career, you may experience and wonder about how to deal with physician burnout.

It may or may not be happening to you.

But we’re sure as clouds that it’s happening around you.

This struggle is real.

A good way to prevent burnout is knowing what the red flags are.

Or, maybe shifting your perspective.

Or, maybe asking yourself this question: How can I prevent myself from getting completely consumed by burnout so it doesn’t affect me reaching my ideal life?


Not so much.

Though, I talked with Dr. Jeff Smith, a practicing Orthopaedic Trauma Surgeon and founder of SurgeonMasters who is passionate about the topic.

Dr. Smith addresses how to deal with physician burnout and also tackles how to lessen the impact of your stress about money.

physician burnout, how to deal with physician burnout, physician finances

Internal Stressors, External Impact

Dr. Smith explains that a physician can become emotionally exhausted due to their constant need to be empathetic and compassionate with their patients. He cites the Maslach definition of burnout and the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which is an assessment tool frequently used for professionals working in human service careers.

To explain a few of the symptoms, they play out like this:

  • Depersonalization
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Decreased Sense of personal accomplishment

Are you starting to feel that you are just doing a job?

Dr. Smith explains that most physicians don’t go into medicine for it to be “just a job”.

A physician must balance how he handles the emotions he witnesses his patients having, such as anger and sorrow.

A physician must deal with his patients’ emotions by tuning them out to a degree…but not tuning them out entirely. He mentions, that as humans, we are wired to be compassionate.

A warning sign is when you start to care less and your care begins to be hard to care about your patients as individuals. This will not feel good for you or your patient!physician burnout, how to deal with physician burnout, physician finances

Depersonalization is when you aren’t looking at your patients as a person, they merely become a diagnosis.

He mentions that a decreased sense of personal accomplishment can be a warning recognized as a late stage in your burnout. He feels that is because we all like to feel we are doing something purposeful, and to the world outside you are.

However, inside, you feel like you are riding the treadmill–doing the same things day in and day out.

There are the amazing days and amazing highs when we give our patients great care, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, there are patients who aren’t getting better and that may affect our feeling of personal accomplishment.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Depersonalization is a symptom of burnout. When you aren’t looking at your patients as a person, they merely become a diagnosis, says the founder of @SurgeonMasters. ” user=”physicianwealth” url=””]

Main Causes of Burnout

Are there main causes of burnout?

I can only imagine—I am so thankful that you and everyone listening are doing what you do.

There is no way that I am built to handle that. You guys are dealing with hurt, sick, scared, and dying people.

There is the practice of clinical medicine, then job specific things (call rotations, compensation, politics of the hospital).

Dr. Smith states the list is very long and chips away at a physician’s purpose. He feels that the biggest cause of burnout is the Electronic Medical Record, which is not satisfying as the interaction with a patient.

Other issues that may drive a physician to burnout:

  • Lack of control (feeling that the electronic medical record controls us)
  • Time constraints (an hour of patient care = two hours of administrative time)

Are physicians with certain character traits more likely to burnout?

When I mentioned that perhaps a perfectionist might be likely to burnout, Dr. Smith gives credit to his colleague Dr. Dike Drummond a burnout advocate.

Dr. Drummond talks about the perfectionist, the Lone Ranger (the person who functions and rescues everyone on their own), the superhero and the workaholic. He explains that although the goal of a physician is to improve his skills over time, perfectionism is deemed a negative trait since it is unachievable. Being a perfectionist can wear you down and lead to burnout.

He mentions the decline strategy leads to burnout.

A decline strategy is the opposite of a growth mindset.

The growth mindset is a healthy, sustainable and anti-burnout strategy.

I feel like some personality traits might be like throwing gas on a fire.

Your personality trait might not be the cause, but other factors chipping away could make the situation decline into burnout. How do you assess if you are moving in the direction of a physician burnout stats?physician burnout, how to deal with physician burnout, physician finances

  • Am I in control?
  • Am I making my own decisions?
  • Am I moving in a direction that I enjoy?
  • Or am I moving in a direction will cause a situation to get worse?

How to Deal With Physician Burnout

What is burnout telling you?

When is it a positive feeling?

Burnout is a positive feeling because it is a signal that we need to assess our situation.

We are being proactive when we look at a situation to see if we can make adjustments.

We want to make adjustments that move us from going in the wrong direction and change course to a direction we feel better about.

I think it is amazing that Dr. Smith uses burnout as a way for a physician to get “right” with themselves.

Dr. Smith explains that using the current language, the victim of burnout is being held responsible for their burnout. What if the cause of their burnout is something that he/she can’t control?

Should a physician take responsibility for how they react to those events?

An example is the Electronic Medical Record that a physician has no control over.

Those are the type of things that chip away at a physician, and they shouldn’t blame themselves for.

Dr. Smith would like to eliminate shame and blame from the conversation. He offers these suggestions on how to deal with physician burnout:

    • Take control of what you can
    • Move toward wellness
    • Continue to advocate

Studies show that we only have about 20% control over our experience of burnout. The other 80% includes outside factors. Dr. Smith lists some possible outside factors:

  • Working in a hospital or healthcare setting
  • More healthcare is managed by the government or Insurance

These factors can pull a physician away from his values of providing quality care for the patient and they contribute to feeling burned out.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Founder of @SurgeonMasters says, burnout is a positive thing because signal to ourselves that we need to assess our situation and adjust accordingly.” user=”physicianwealth” url=””]

Burnout and Finances

Another question we would like to answer is in regard to physician burnout and finances. A lot of medical students make the decision to delay major life events such as getting married or having children.

They finally become an attending physician only to get on the treadmill financially and in their work life.

At this time, you ultimately learn how to balance your time versus money.

Finances are a contributor to a physician’s stress level and added to the other burnout factors–the combination may tip you over the edge.

Take into consideration the sacrifices (time, personal decisions such as marriage and finances) you make as a medical student and then as a resident, once you reach the point of becoming an attending physician, you feel it is time for your circumstances to reflect those sacrifices.

The reality is an attending physician usually has a student loan problem of approximately $200,000 plus.

Dr. Smith explains how having a higher income lifestyle while extending the time you pay off debt or invest increases your chance of burning out. There is a certain amount of peer pressure to deal with.physician burnout, how to deal with physician burnout, physician finances

The type of luxury car a new attending physician sees another new physician driving, the exotic vacation his friend is taking, and the photos of the new house on Facebook all contribute to the pressure. As I’ve said on previous episodes physicians are not trained in finances. They didn’t take any finance classes in medical school or during residency. That is why we are here to educate new attending physicians on how to deal effectively with their finances and how to deal with physician burnout.

Dr. Smith explains how a mentor who participates in a spending lifestyle versus a saving or investing one might affect a new attending physician’s perception.

The problem is you aren’t seeing the end result. He further explains the human nature of people. They show others their successes but not their struggles and failures. He mentions that competitive people especially attempt to hide their failures–sometimes even to themselves! He states that having a reality check that keeps you guided in the right direction over the long haul is important.

How to deal with physician burnout is having a balanced view of social media so that you don’t fall into the trap of comparing your situation the friend who only posts the positive aspects of their life.

I was talking to a client earlier about his call and work schedule. He has to work every other holiday due to the small size of the practice he is in. He sees pictures of his friends spending time with their family on the holidays. I can see how that is tough.

Tools In Your Toolbox

How to deal with physician burnout is to keep it simple. Dr. Smith gives an example that adding more complexity, even to improve something, with more rules and regulations makes it harder to follow those rules. It becomes a less efficient way to achieve the intended improvement. I asked Dr. Smith how to deal with physician burnout; if there were any tools that would help someone who might be experiencing burnout. He said these things:

  • Awareness
  • Understanding what burnout is about
  • Knowing how you are experiencing burnout
  • Implementing action

Dr. Smith follows the baby step concept.

Don’t try to start with your biggest challenge, if you don’t succeed, the continued failure will add to the problem. If you take a portion of the problem which is easy to tackle and do that one thing, then you can use that success to build on.

He states that failure is usually linked to setting an unrealistic goal. I used to have a lengthy to-do list, when I walked away I felt like I didn’t get enough done. Now I have the three big things that I work on every day. I find that it’s more rewarding.

As we ended our discussion, I asked Dr. Smith where all the great stuff he is working on can be found.

He said you can find it at his website: There are a lot of educational information, blogs, podcasts regarding burnout and wellness.

These are things that aren’t taught in medical school and training.

You can also find The 8 PRACTICEs of Highly Successful Surgeons (performance improvement resource). And he would like any feedback that you care to provide.

He believes that both positive and negative feedback is helpful. There are a lot of free educational material for coaching and wellness. I encourage you to check them out!

How to deal with physician burnout is reframing things in a positive way. I love that Dr. Smith is helping to create emotional wellness among physicians. And, I love that he is helping solve some of these equations with positive techniques!

In my discussion with Dr. Smith, we went over a few physician burnout stats and raised awareness. We wanted to educate you on the benefits of being proactive, jumpstarting burnout prevention and incorporating wellness and positivity. We hope that you take the time to visit Dr. Smith’s website and review the resources that he provides.