by Dr. Pieter du Plessis, Clinical Psychologist

Burnout in the medical profession is an increasing phenomenon. A recent Survey, including responses from 15 000 physicians from 29 different specialist’s groups, reported burnout amongst 42% of them while 15% of physicians reported suffering from depression (Medscape National Physician Burnout and Depression Report 2018). Other studies show that more than half of US physicians and probably more in some other countries meet the criteria of burnout (Kumar, 2016).

Many factors contribute to this phenomenon. Factors outside the doctor-patient relationship include:

• an increasing critical, litigious and unforgiving environment
• limited healthcare resources
• rapidly advancing knowledge and techniques which sometimes acquire fulfilling unfamiliar tasks
• red tape and administration
• lack of support from peers and collegues.

Factors within the doctor-patient relationship include:

• the mere fact of dealing with patients, which means dealing with ill and demanding people
• sense of failure and frustration when illness progresses or persist
• dealing with losses, grief, fears and uncertainty.
Warning signs of burnout are the mere desire to escape from and avoid patients.
• The symptoms of burnout include:
• emotional exhaustion
• depersonalization or compassion fatigue – one finds it difficult to show empathy and patients are treated as objects
• reduced personal accomplishments which cause self doubt and loss of meaning in your work
• vicarious traumatization, being traumatized by the gruesome stories of patients or the trauma they suffer.

Burnout can cause many dysfunctions, like severe depression, suicide, dysfunctions in a marriage or relationships, poor judgement and errors in patient care and disengagement from your work.

To prevent burnout, the care giver needs to find balance in her/his life. There must a balance in work and personal life. Self-awareness is important and finding enough me-time pays off. It is also important to still experience meaning in your life and work and be able to engage in your work. For instance, it is important to be aware of your core values. Just chasing money would not be awarding if your core values include that to be of service to people and to help them in their suffering. Supporting relations are important and therapy or supervision are contributing factors in preventing burnout.