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Understanding Physician Fatigue

The long hours most physicians work make an overbooked schedule almost inevitable.

One survey, conducted by AMA Insurance to assess work-life balance for physicians, found that just 14 percent of physicians worked fewer than 40 hours a week. Twenty-three percent worked 61 hours weekly or more, and 5 percent worked more than 80 hours a week.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that physician burnout has reached epidemic rates throughout the country. One systemic review reported that all physicians, physicians-in-training and medical students in the U.S. were at risk of burnout, and more than 50 percent were already affected.

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Physician burnout can have dangerous consequences for doctors and patients alike. One survey of fatigued residents found that half of the respondents reported being involved in a car accident within the past three months. Doctors suffering from burnout are more likely to make medical errors, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reports, which can endanger patients. Burnout is also linked to suicidal ideation

The problem of physician burnout needs to be reckoned with by the health care industry as a whole. In the meantime, you can take steps to protect yourself. Read on to learn about signs you’re suffering from physician fatigue or burnout — and what to do if you’re at risk. 

What causes physician fatigue?

A lot of factors contribute to physician fatigue and burnout, but punishing work schedules (accompanied by social pressure to work such long hours), poor work-life balance and high levels of occupational stress all play a central role. The hardship of being unable to provide the best care — for example, because of a patient’s financial situation — can also wear physicians down, as Connecticut-based cardiologist Jeffrey Walden wrote in a 2016 op-ed for the journal Family Practice Management . 

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On an individual level, fatigue and burnout set in when you don’t have time to recharge. Non-stop work, combined with extreme stress, leaves you emotionally and physically depleted. Make time for rest and self-care to lower your risk of burnout. 

What are the signs of physician fatigue?

When burnout rears its head, the signs can be both physical and psychological: You might feel exhausted to the point where your workload doesn’t feel sustainable. You might begin to feel emotionally dissociated, or checked out, from your job. You might feel directionless, like you have no sense of purpose, or question why you became a doctor in the first place.

You may find your personal life suffering too. Physician burnout can shift your outlook on life from sunny to cynical. More hours spent at the practice usually means less time spent with family and friends. 

How can you address (and avoid) physician fatigue?

The first step to fighting fatigue and burnout is to accept your limitations. No one can work tirelessly without rest. Developing self-awareness of what you can and cannot do may help you become more resilient. Set work boundaries and stick to them as best you can.

Support from the people in your life may help you address or avoid burnout too. Spending time with your loved ones can recharge your emotional batteries, and a strong support staff in your practice can help you focus on what’s most important and rewarding in your work.

Allocating 20 percent of your working hours to tasks that feel meaningful is an effective way to address burnout, according to a 2017 review paper. Think about what made you go into medicine, and adjust your hours so you can focus on what matters to you. Delegate tasks you don’t enjoy to your staff.

Finally, lean on mental health services, especially if you’re contemplating self-harm or abusing substances to stay on top of your workload. Though it may feel scary, taking the step to talk to a therapist may just save your life — and the lives of your patients.