If you’re extremely exhausted and feeling detached and ineffective at your job, you’re likely experiencing professional burnout. Learning how to avoid burnout at work—or how to correct it if you’re already experiencing it—can do wonders to help your happiness and your health.
Burnout can affect anyone in any occupation, although it’s rampant among physicians and other healthcare providers. When it hits, it can lead to negative health consequences, from gastrointestinal issues to cognitive deficits—and when it affects those in the health field, it seems like an ironic outcome considering their dedication to improving the well-being of others. It also has a more global impact on health, including declining numbers of doctors and poorer patient care in clinical settings.
Luckily, Functional Medicine offers a solution, in its approach to medicine for practitioners and its approach to healing for other professionals. Whatever your job may be, keep reading for help recognizing the signs of burnout, plus strategies for recharging your batteries and reclaiming the pleasures you can find in a good day’s work.
No matter what your job is, if it involves stress, you could be at risk for occupational burnout. Check out this article to find out how to avoid it—or how to rediscover your passion and productivity if you’re already experiencing burnout at work. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser
Beware of Burnout: A Danger You Face No Matter Your Job
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s to describe the stress and emotional depletion he saw people experiencing in helping professions, such as medicine. Today, it is widely recognized as a legitimate medical disorder, and one that can affect anyone at work, in any profession. (1, 2)
In fact, a recent Gallup survey found that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience occupational burnout. Of the nearly 7,500 employees across a variety of fields who took part, 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out occasionally. Participants cited reasons from an unmanageable workload and unreasonable deadlines to a lack of clear communication and support from their managers. Add to these the fact that today we can, and are sometimes expected to, work away from the office almost 24/7 via phones and laptops, and it’s not hard to see why the phenomenon stretches across sectors. (3)
- Overwhelming exhaustion
- Feelings of cynicism, along with frustration and anger, that lead to detachment from your job
- A sense of ineffectiveness or failure
To be sure, burnout has negative consequences in our professional lives; those who are burned out are much more likely to take sick days, perhaps missing pay, for example. (6) But also not surprisingly, the effects of burnout extend far beyond the office door.
Research notes that it can lead to ruined personal relationships, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse. Burnout has been found to be a significant predictor of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, and even death in those under the age of 45. And recent studies suggest that it can literally be too much for our minds to handle, rewiring neural circuits that make it hard for us to cope with stressful scenarios and eventually leading to distinctive changes in brain anatomy and cognition. (8, 9, 10, 11)
Are You in the Healthcare Field? Why Burnout Hits You Hardest
Although it can affect anyone in any field, it does appear that if you work in a helping profession, as Dr. Freudenberger noted, you’re more likely than others to experience burnout. And it seems physicians, in particular, are hit especially hard by the syndrome.
Why are practitioners so burned out, when most went into the profession with a zeal to help people? Many conventional physicians today deal with common problems like high patient volumes (upwards of 25 a day), long working hours (up to 70-hour weeks)—thanks in part to time-consuming electronic medical records upkeep and navigating the insurance maze—and the general stresses of the profit-driven, increasingly litigious, and often hostile environment of our medical system, which can leave them feeling like just another cog in the machine.
Does this describe your working situation? If so, you likely know how much of an impact these factors can have on your health and your home life, and that of your colleagues. Among physicians, burnout manifests in disproportionately high rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide or thoughts of suicide. (14, 15, 16)
You likely also know the impact practitioner burnout can have on patients. Not only is burnout causing practitioners to leave the field in droves—the country is expected to face a shortage of up to 100,000 physicians in the next decade or so—but it’s causing those that do stay to make medical errors, including errors that have fatal consequences. (17, 18)
Is It Burnout or Something More? Understanding Moral Injury
If you’re a practitioner experiencing the symptoms of burnout described here but you don’t feel like the term really resonates with you, I get it. And you’re not alone. Many physicians feel the concept of burnout suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience on their part, yet I can attest that my colleagues are some of the most resilient people I know—and I’m sure you are, too. As medical practitioners, you’ve survived decades of intense education, complex on-the-job training and demanding full-time work.
It’s been suggested that “moral injury” is a more apt description for physicians feeling exhausted by and ineffective in their jobs. (19, 20) This term was first used to describe soldiers’ responses to actions during war that challenged their ethics. For practitioners, it conveys the feelings that arise from not being able to provide the high level of care doctors aspire to. If you’re like most physicians, you entered medicine believing it was your calling. Not being able to fulfill that calling and care for patients the way you envisioned in this modern, high-pressure medical environment is quite damaging.
Here’s How to Avoid Burnout at Work
So, you’ve read this far and you’re closely identifying with the characterizations of either burnout or moral injury. You’re totally exhausted and dragging yourself to work, feeling disillusioned, and you’re lacking the energy to be consistently productive—which means your performance is likely suffering. You might even have gastrointestinal upset or feel as if you’re constantly sick as a result of all the stress. Now what?
Research has shown that mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation, can reduce burnout among nurses and physicians as well as other professionals. (21, 22, 23) How? Practicing mindfulness—even for a short time—increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and managing stress. It helps us tune out distractions and improve our ability to focus. And it enhances our relationships, makes us feel more connected and relaxed, and boosts our compassion for ourselves and others.
Mindfulness means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is, rather than getting lost in thoughts about the future or the past. You can find general mindfulness tips in this previous article, “How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience.” The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a free meditation podcast with guided weekly meditations. I also like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, and some people have found apps like Headspace to be helpful.
Do a Digital Detox
Today’s technology keeps our attention bouncing around like a pinball. Yet the ability to control where you direct your attention is fundamental to optimal performance in whatever type of work you do. I’ve done five- and even 10-day digital detoxes in the past, during which I completely unplugged from all tech, and I can attest to how much they can boost your mood and help you regain focus and clarity. You don’t have to go that long. Even just one day or a few hours a week can be helpful. Set an email autoresponder and spend the time you’ll gain meditating, engaging in physical activity, and otherwise reconnecting with yourself and your family and friends.
Practice Good Work Hygiene
Prioritize Sleep and Exercise
When work consumes our lives, we can forget these basics. But don’t underestimate what adequate sleep (at least seven hours) and regular physical activity can do for your productivity, energy level, and outlook.
Before you say, But Chris, that’s not possible, hear me out. There are ways to work more efficiently so that you can work less but still get the same amount done. Batching your emails, automating repetitive tasks, and delegating can all help.
If you need extra help learning how to work less and accomplish more, check out this free webinar replay. You’ll get an overview of my Busy to Balanced program, which can help you improve your efficiency and productivity while you reclaim a few extra hours in your work week. I also offer the full, eight-part Busy to Balanced course through the ADAPT Practitioner Training Program.
Practitioners: Make Time to Get Together with Your Colleagues
Healthcare can be very isolating. It’s common for practitioners to spend most of their time working directly with patients instead of interacting with colleagues on a personal level. That can lead to a sense of loneliness and, eventually, burnout. One way to help alleviate that is to find the time to get together and share a group experience with your coworkers.
I’ve taken part in meditation retreats for around 25 years, and I’m a big believer in their transformative power. Even if you can’t find time to schedule a work retreat, just getting together with your coworkers outside of the workplace can help you feel more connected and, ultimately, more fulfilled.
Consider Making the Switch to Functional Medicine
If you’re looking for another way to practice medicine, consider a Functional approach. Functional Medicine aims to uncover the root causes of poor health. It’s about treating those causes, rather than just covering up symptoms with prescriptions, to help patients truly heal—to make a lasting positive difference in their lives. For me, that was one of the most appealing things about Functional Medicine, and I think it’s one of the least discussed but most important gifts it can offer physicians who shift their practice in that direction. Seeing such results can help you feel successful in your work and personally fulfilled by your calling.
What’s more, Functional Medicine embraces a collaborative healthcare model. In a collaborative model, allied providers, nutritionists, and health coaches work alongside physicians to provide additional layers of support, to both doctors and patients. This streamlines the patient care process, improves the quality of patient care, and creates a better work environment for physicians. It gives doctors more autonomy and increases their professional satisfaction and quality of life, all while resulting in better outcomes for patients.
I embrace this model in my own practice, the California Center for Functional Medicine. It’s also a big part of what I teach aspiring Functional Medicine practitioners in my ADAPT Practitioner Training Program. I believe that this approach to healthcare holds the key to stemming the rising tide of chronic disease—while preventing burnout at work for practitioners.
If you’re not experiencing burnout or moral injury at work, that’s great news—and I hope it stays that way. But if, like so many professionals, you feel the onset of exhaustion and detachment, I urge you to pay attention to the warning signs discussed here and use the strategies shared above to break the cycle and find joy in your work once more.
Now, I’d like you to share your story. Have you experienced feelings of work-related burnout or moral injury? How have you coped? Leave a comment below and let me know!