Overcoming Physician Burnout During the Winter

January 24, 2020
Leo Rozmaryn, MD

A longtime orthopedic surgeon shares simple habits a physician can adopt to overcome burnout symptoms.

Leo Rozmaryn, MD

As the healthcare landscape continues to change, doctors are taking on more administrative work and must adapt to new technology. Paired with the immense pressure to maintain a successful practice while taking on these additional administrative tasks, physician burnout has become a trending topic in the medical community.

According to a recent report, more than 40% of physicians reported feeling burnt out in 2019. The cold and dark of winter and feelings of depression that are often associated with the season certainly don’t help.

As an orthopedic surgeon practicing for more than 30 years, I have seen firsthand the impact that burnout can have on physicians. In particular, burnout can be exacerbated without the proper support needed to manage patient care as well as oversee a team of office staff. For example, it can be easy for an orthopedic surgeon to get behind in his or her patient schedule without technicians available who can assist with tasks like rolling casts.

Further, performing surgery takes a physical and mental toll, requiring hours of concentration and fine motor movements. In addition to being confined to the operating room, surgeons must stand in the same place for several hours at once, which can be taxing on the body.

Recognizing Burnout

With an increasing number of physicians experiencing feelings of burnout, it is critical that, as a medical community, we become adept at recognizing the signs of burnout. It is our responsibility to help our colleagues overcome these feelings and focus on why we became doctors in the first place: to help our patients.The most tell-tale sign that a physician is experiencing feelings of burnout is physical exhaustion, particularly when his or her exhaustion is impacting quality or volume of care. Another sign I look for is a change in personality. For example, when a physician who has a reputation for being friendly and upbeat and is known for playing music in the operating room becomes irritable among colleagues, he or she may be experiencing burnout.

I also look out for forgetfulness, like if a physician begins regularly missing scheduled meetings. Even worse, extreme cases of burnout can lead to medical errors.

Preventing Burnout

Simply knowing the signs of burnout isn’t enough. Whenever possible, I try to extend a helping hand to a colleague who seems to be experiencing burnout. It can be tricky to approach this conversation, but it is always a good first step to let your colleague know that you are available to talk and assist. Extending this gesture goes a long way. He or she may not want to discuss these feelings, but it is helpful to show your support at work and offer to help, should your colleague want to talk.Overcoming, or better yet preventing burnout, especially when intensified in the winter, is crucial for a long, fulfilling career in medicine. Exercising daily is an easy step a physician can take to avoid burnout. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults need 150 minutes of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise each week—and just because you are a doctor doesn’t mean you can pass this up!

However, any amount of exercise can help. Even taking 10 minutes at work each day to stretch can reduce anxiety and exhaustion.

Getting enough sleep is a necessity that is often overlooked in the medical profession. Physicians should be sleeping at least seven hours each night in order to reset the body and prepare for the next day. For younger physicians, not getting enough sleep may be tolerable within reason, but as doctors get older, too little sleep can lead to a genuine cognitive decline that puts patients at risk in a very consistent way, and should be avoided at all costs.

Practicing mindfulness is another great tool for physicians. A study published in JAMA found that participating in a mindfulness course was associated with improvements in well-being and attitudes about patient-centered care.

We need time off, too. Physicians often have heavy workloads, but it is critical to establish a work-life balance and regularly carve out time to spend with family and friends. After all, physicians’ families may feel negative effects of burnout, too, so prioritizing the people in our lives is key.

Exercising as a family, eating a meal together or doing an activity with neighbors is a great way to spend time together, and can make a big difference in your mood in and out of work.

Lastly, I recommend breaking up the winter by taking a vacation somewhere warm. It is emotionally taxing to drive to and from work when it’s dark outside. A winter vacation provides the opportunity to enjoy some sunshine, unplug from responsibilities and relax, which in turn can help physicians remain positive and motivated throughout those winter months.

Burnout doesn’t need to be synonymous with a career in medicine. It is a physician’s job to take care of others, but I hope the medical community will start prioritizing self-care, too. I know this will be hugely beneficial for future generations of physicians and our patients as well.

Leo Rozmaryn, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at The Centers for Advanced Orthopedics in Rockville, MD. The presented analysis reflects his views, not necessarily those of the publication.  Health care professionals and researchers interested in responding to this piece or similarly contributing to HCPLive® can reach the editorial staff by submitting a request here.