Preventing Burnout by Keeping Sane at Work

| January 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

by Carl Pesta, DO, FASMBS

Dr. Pesta is with McLaren Macomb Hospital in Mount Clemens, Michigan.

Funding: No funding was provided.

Disclosures: The author has no conflicts of interest relevant to the content of this article.

Bariatric Times. 2020;17(1):19.

Hey! Stop it. You’re killing yourself! Have you ever thought about why you’re tired all the time, why you’re yelling at the kids, or kicking the dog? You are getting burned out!

We’ve all been there. You have too much to do, there is not enough time in the day, and it’s hard to say no to the requests made of you from multiple sources. Did you know that the physician burnout rate exceeds 50 percent?1 It could be sneaking up on you without you realizing it. Symptoms include a feeling of exhaustion or nothing left to give at the end of the day, overall cynicism, and lack of enjoyment in the things that used to excite you in your work.

Physician burnout is an issue on a grander scale. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, one of the country’s most prestigious science institutions, released a 312-page report in October 2019,2 detailing how the flawed healthcare system causes physicians and nurses to work to extremes. It states that they become “apathetic toward patients, and at times trying to blunt their own pain with alcohol, or even suicide attempts.”2 In fact, the physician suicide rate is twice that of the general population, and it is one of the highest among all professions.3

The underlying problem of physician burnout appears to be the compounding frustration that comes with the day-to-day practice of medicine. For many, it is the multiple log-in requirements on a computer to satisfy privacy laws and the endless clicking of a mouse to document the noncontributory findings to satisfy billing. Multiple issues such as these play into the daily frustration that steals the enjoyment from the practice of medicine that allured healthcare clinicians into the profession to begin with.

Though a more global approach has been suggested to combat this problem from an organizational standpoint, what can we do on an individual level to help battle this ever-growing problem?

Work–life balance is a buzz phrase that has captured the headlines regarding physician burnout. Because the daily schedule is so demanding of surgeons, they often feel that they can’t let up and must work nonstop. I don’t remember the source, but I once read a statement that said, “If you think the world can’t go on without you, take a look at your schedule the day after your dead!” It brings to mind the fact that when it’s over, it is over, and you don’t want to leave this world thinking, I just wish I would have…. (fill in the blank).

Though things get crazy at times, I like to think that I have a good work life balance. For example, one recent weekend, I had planned an outing for the office staff with great seats to a Luke Bryan country concert. In preparation for this event, I blocked my schedule to get out early that day. Were there more cases to do that day? Sure! But they weren’t emergent, and they could wait. Saturday did involve an unplanned operation for an internal hernia from a gastric bypass from years earlier, and rounds had to be completed as well. But right after that, I attended my boy’s hockey game. They both played well, and my senior scored the only goal for his team. From there, I took my parents, who attended the game, to dinner where we caught up on family life. Saturday night, I met with some friends visiting from out of town. Sunday, I slept in, rode my stationary bike, lifted weights, stopped by the hardware store for some tools for a few minor repairs, had dinner with my wife and children, and then sat in front of the fireplace to focus on the details of this commentary. I detail this weekend to highlight the things most important to me when focusing on work life balance, namely, scheduled downtime, music, exercise, friends, family, sleep, peaceful settings, and hobbies. These coincide with a journal article that focused on physician burnout, which stated that “Individually focused strategies for combating burnout can be meditation, exercise, hobbies, healthy relationships with family and friends, and seeking mental health care if needed.”4

On the subject of “numbing,” I am currently reading a book called Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. She speaks on the concept that to cover shame or frustration, people try to numb their experience. Dangerously, this can take the form of addiction to alcohol or drugs. More insidiously, it can come in the form of distraction. With the world wide web in the palm of our hand, we continue to see more and more disengagement. Brown explains that with distraction, there is healthy down time, but then in contrast, there is numbing. Sitting down to watch your favorite television show is relaxation. Flipping through channels for an hour or scrolling through social media is “numbing.” It is mindless, with no purpose other than to keep distracted. This form of numbing is hazardous to your wellbeing and should be controlled.

This can be seen every day now in our day-to-day lives. Colleagues pass you in the hall, staring at their phones, not lifting an eye to acknowledge your presence. People speak on their phones as they place their order at Starbucks, not acknowledging the person at the other end of the transaction. I believe that it is this overall desensitization that plays a role in disconnection from society as a whole. This directly contributes to burnout—the inability to interact in the human experience. Try leaving your phone in your lab coat pocket when traversing the halls of the hospital. Whether they are the CEO, or the person who mops the floor, look everyone you interact with in the eye and speak to them as human beings. This can allow you to enjoy work as a social interaction, not just a place to generate a paycheck. It takes a conscious effort to be social and interact with our colleagues, but it just might be the thing we need to eliminate the physician burnout that is becoming so prevalent.

I want to inspire you to take an active role in reducing physician burnout. We have to watch out for each other and ourselves. Taking steps to reduce stress in your everyday life can help rejuvenate your soul, rekindle your desire to practice, and improve the lives that you touch. So, go ahead! Block your schedule, take a vacation, sing a song, read a book, get some exercise, be home for your family, and call me if you need to talk. Cheers to a brand new year!


  1. Physician Burnout in 2019, Charted. Advisory Board. Accessed January 8, 2020.
  2. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Report. Accessed October 23, 2019.
  3. Doctors’ Suicide Rate Highest of Any Profession. WebMD. Accessed January 8, 2020.
  4. Callahan K, Christman G, Maltby L. Battling burnout: strategies for promoting physician wellness. Adv Pediatr. 2018;65(1):1–17.


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