photo of one burnt match surrounded by unused matches, one with a leaf growing out. Posted on Dr. James Goydos 2021 article on burnout.

What is burnout? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.  The concept  of burnout is not a new one, and its impact has been around for decades. It may come as a surprise to some that this was not an official diagnosis until recently, with the addition in the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) 11th edition in 2019. 

The phenomenon of burnout has been well-documented. A Deloitte survey of 1,000 US employees found that 77% of professionals have experienced burnout at their current job. A Gallup poll found that over two-thirds of people will experience burnout at some time during their career. Some industries are more prone to burnout than others, and the world has borne witness to this fact in the wake of the pandemic. 

Those in the healthcare industry were put center stage as they helped to combat the novel coronavirus amidst an increase in cases and dwindling medical supplies. Doctors and nurses were forced to make impossible decisions, prioritizing care for some patients over others due to insufficient beds and ventilators. For many, it has been the trolley problem thought experiment playing out in real life. 

Physician burnout was a problem before the pandemic, but the phenomenon has certainly been exacerbated from 2020 onas the world continues to grapple with the virus and its mutations. There are many elements unique to the medical industry or other similar professions which can be linked to burnout. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Qualityhave identified the low control over the pace of work, time pressures, and a chaotic environment as a few of the conditions which can lead to burnout. 

These findings make sense. A trauma surgeon will not know from one minute from the next when their next patient will arrive, or in what state they will arrive. Patients in an Intensive Care Unit will each require time-sensitive care. However, these are all aspects unique to the industry and the position. One cannot change the immediacy of the tasks required. But we can be sensitive to their impacts on patient and provider health.  

The medical industry is working towards reducing burnout. Dr. Christine Sinsky, vice president of professional satisfaction at the American Medical Association notes, 

“The most powerful interventions to reduce burnout are to improve workflow efficiency, teamwork, and leadership”.

These interventions are remarkably similar to those which are recommended for reducing burnout in other industries. And this makes sense. While some fields can be more prone to burnout than others, the elements which can lead to burnout in medicine are similar to those in other industries. Tending to follow-up appointments with patients and getting a project in by a tight deadline are both examples of time pressure. The context may be different, but the resulting pressures are often the same.

It is clear that burnout knows no boundaries. It is industry agnostic. Awareness is the first step in helping to combat it. 

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