How to recognize and respond to burnout in a fellow physician

Sara Berg, MS , News Editor

Physician burnout is distressingly common, yet when you see a colleague struggling you might not be sure what to say or do. Knowing what to look for and how to respond can make a huge difference to a struggling colleague.

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Whether you are in a small practice, hospital or health system, here is how to recognize and how to respond to physician burnout in a colleague.

When physicians are burned out, they noticeably go from happy and inquisitive to rushed and indifferent. As a result, both the patient and physician suffer.

“It’s a tough job. It’s hard work. Everybody is going to be down at some point in time and it will often feel like you’re barely keeping your head above water,” AMA member Kevin Hopkins, MD, said in an interview with AMA Wire®. “When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, make sure you are looking for people around you, because you will notice co-workers—and even partners and physicians—who are drowning.”

Look to others around you. Changes in personality, such as making less eye contact or asking fewer questions, are often signs of depersonalization and fatigue. If left unaddressed, they can lead to inattentiveness and indifference—neither of which improve patient care or physicians’ experience.

“If you are only concerned about keeping your own head above water, you’re never going to throw them a line to help them when they’re drowning,” said Dr. Hopkins, a family physician and medical director at the Cleveland Clinic Strongsville Family Health and Ambulatory Surgery Center in Strongsville, Ohio.

“Be aware of your surroundings, be aware of the mood, the level of burnout of the people with whom you work most closely,” he added. “And when you see someone is in trouble, do something about it.”

The strongest sign of burnout is when a physician feels that nothing she does will make a difference. Watch out for physicians who might display an increase in biased comments about patients and the ineffectiveness of treating them.

Physician burnout comes with a sense of despair, hopelessness and isolation. While that can be intimidating when you spot it in a colleague, the first response can be basic.

“It is amazing what a difference just being kind and treating people with respect makes,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Treat other people the way you would want your mom treated.”  

Approach a fellow physician with empathy and let them know you care about them or have noticed they are struggling.

No one is expected to be upbeat all the time, but there is a big difference between being tired at work and being exhausted by your profession. Too often, Dr. Hopkins hears from patients who have gone to see another physician and report, “He has no personality” or “He didn’t answer any questions.”

Those can be signs of burnout. Physician burnout might begin with exhaustion, but it can lead to something worse if not identified. Unfortunately, early in training, physicians often learn that seeking help is a sign of weakness—it is not. Reassure your colleague that asking for help is a sign of health and recommend they speak with their family, other physicians or even seek professional help.

The AMA offers online CME on physician burnout that helps doctors redesign their medical practices to minimize stress and improve job satisfaction.

AMA’s STEPS Forward™ is an open-access platform featuring more than 50 modules that offer actionable, expert-driven strategies and insights supported by practical resources and tools. Based on best practices from the field, STEPS Forward modules empower practices to identify areas or opportunities for improvement, set meaningful and achievable goals, and implement transformative changes designed to increase operational efficiencies, elevate clinical team engagement, and improve patient care.

Several modules have been developed from the generous grant funding of the federal Transforming Clinical Practices Initiative (TCPI), an effort designed to help clinicians achieve large-scale health transformation through TCPI’s Practice Transformation Networks.

The AMA, in collaboration with TCPI, is providing technical assistance and peer-level support by way of STEPS Forward resources to enrolled practices. The AMA is also engaging the national physician community in health care transformation through network projects, change packages, success stories and training modules.