• Family Physician Burnout: Preserving Your Well-Being

    It’s no secret that being a family physician has many rewarding elements. We see a variety of cases each day, we can develop longstanding relationships with our patients while we use our expertise to positively impact their health, and we can practice almost anywhere. Ultimately, we should have one of the highest job satisfaction rates of any profession because we’re doing something for the greater good of humanity.

    Family physician feeling stressed

    However, being a family physician comes with unwelcome challenges, too. We know about the long hours at the office, mountains of EHR documentation, time constraints when seeing patients, and the struggle to maintain a positive work/life balance. It was stressful even before COVID-19 but now it is even more so. Over time, you may find yourself feeling anxious, irritated, and exhausted. When these feelings don’t fade, they may be symptoms of physician burnout. And when burnout is not addressed, it can lead down a path of dissatisfaction, withdrawal, lack of purpose, and in some cases, depression.

    If you feel this way, know that you are not alone. Also know that this feeling doesn’t have to persist. There are positive steps you can take immediately to restore your well-being and regain your confidence.

    Many family physicians feel burnout

    According to the American Medical Association, burnout is a long-term stress reaction characterized by depersonalization. This can include cynical or negative attitudes towards patients, emotional exhaustion, a feeling of decreased personal achievement, and lack of empathy for patients.

    Today, nearly 50% of our family physician colleagues report at least one symptom of burnout. In fact, according to the Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2020: The Generational Divide, family medicine physicians placed in the top five specialties who reported the highest rates of burnout.

    Symptoms of physician burnout

    We’re all human, and we experience and handle stress in our own unique ways. As family physicians, we need to closely monitor the stress in our lives and learn to identify the symptoms of burnout. We can then address those issues before they become problematic to our professional — and personal — lives. AAFP believes nothing is more important than physician well-being. Taking care of ourselves first is the best way we can provide our patients quality care. If you experience one or more of the following signs of burnout, consider seeking support.

    Burnout often presents itself through:

    • Lack of motivation
    • Doubting your ability as a physician
    • Difficulty coping with stress of daily life
    • Insomnia
    • Isolation from others
    • Excessive worry or rumination
    • Anxiety
    • Irritability
    • Fatigue
    • Trouble concentrating or remembering things

    Ways to overcome physician burnout

    According to the same Medscape report, more than 60% of physicians who are suffering from burnout don’t plan to seek professional help. Perhaps that’s because of the stigma of doing so or feeling compelled to “handle it.” However, over time, unattended burnout may lead to unintended consequences. So be aware of your well-being. If you feel yourself sliding into burnout, take deliberate actions to manage your stress in a healthy way.

    Professionally, renew your focus on the meaning in the work you do. Remember, your work is making an impact on people’s health every day. Work with your practice’s administrators, if applicable, to address the systemic issues that lead to burnout. Maintain professional relationships with your colleagues and reach out to each other for support.

    Additionally, there are several tools at your disposal that can help you navigate burnout and work through it:

    • Use the family physician well-being tools available through the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
    • Sign up for PeerRxMed™, a free, peer-supported program designed to help physicians and others on the care team move toward thriving both personally and professionally.
    • Take advantage of your practice group’s Employee Assistance Program, if available. 
    • Contact your state’s Physician Health Program. Find the one in your state through the Federation of State Physician Health Programs’ website.
    • Attend physician well-being CME that you find interesting.
    • Register for the AAFP Physician Health & Well-being Conference.
    • Remember what brings you joy in your practice.
    • Delegate tasks to others and consider schedule changes, if feasible.

    Make it a priority to take proactive steps in your personal life, too.

    • Get physical activity. Exercise outdoors, if possible.
    • Do something you enjoy. Make it a habit to schedule “me” time each week so you can recharge for the week ahead.
    • Reach out to trusted family and friends with whom you can have an open, honest conversation about how you feel.
    • Find a place to volunteer. Helping others can help your well-being.
    • Keep a gratitude log. List one or two things each day that you’re grateful for in your life.
    • List out small, daily goals. Satisfaction can be found in meeting these objectives.

    Begin to make these steps a habit in your life. You may find it helpful to follow James Clear’s Habit Stacking process of incorporating new habits into old ones.

    As family physicians, we are uniquely positioned to manage complexity and stress. And with support, resources, tools, and education, we can manage stressors and again find joy in practice.