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Battling Physician Burnout

Physicians, including psychiatrists, are not immune to mental health struggles, and an increasing number are suffering from burnout. According to a 2023 Medscape survey, 47% of psychiatrists and 53% of all physicians said they were experiencing burnout from the stress of their jobs. That’s an 11% jump from five years ago when 42% of physicians reported feelings of this long-term stress reaction.

When ignored or untreated, burnout can have detrimental effects on a physician’s job performance and personal life and can even lead to suicidal ideation. “Physicians are uniquely exposed to the risk of suicide,” Deepak Prabhakar, MD, MPH, chief of medical staff at Sheppard Pratt, says. “Physicians are more likely to die by suicide than the general population. We must keep this in mind when considering how important physicians’ contributions are to society.”

Causes and warning signs

With heavy workloads and long hours, physicians and clinicians are susceptible to feeling burnt out. Staffing shortages, unrealistic job expectations, a perceived lack of autonomy, or “feeling like you’re just a cog in a machine” are other factors that can lead to feelings of overwhelming stress, says Michael Young, MD, medical director at The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt.  

Says Dr. Prabhakar: “Burnout is a composite of exhaustion, professional stagnation, and detachment from work. Unaddressed mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety, also can lead to a physician experiencing feelings of burnout.”

To identify burnout in yourself or your colleagues, there are warning signs to recognize: 

  • Looking tired or rundown
  • A noticeable personality change 
  • Seeming emotionally or physically exhausted
  • Tardiness or absenteeism at work 
  • Reports of or noticeable substance use
  • Decreased interest in patients

“You often see components of depersonalization or cynicism in physicians experiencing burnout,” says Dr. Young. “They may begin viewing patients as numbers rather than with the compassion they’ve displayed previously.”

A path forward

Dr. Young says working to eliminate the stigma associated with asking for mental healthcare is a step everyone can take in preventing physician burnout and suicide. “When we run into stressful situations or feelings of depression and anxiety, we need to talk about them with our support network and seek professional help if necessary,” he says. “If more physicians are willing to reach out for help, that’s good role-modeling behavior for everybody and makes seeking help the norm.”

The Reality of Burnout

Featured Experts

  • Deepak Prabhakar, MD, MPH

    Chief of Medical Staff; Medical Director, Outpatient Services
    Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Traumatic Brain Injury, Concussion, Public Health, Sports Psychiatry, Suicide Prevention
  • Michael Young, MD

    Medical Director, The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt
    Adult Psychiatry, Anxiety Disorders, Mood Disorders, Personality Disorders