4 Keys to Overcoming Pervasive Physician Burnout


Physician burnout has been an increasing concern since the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), physician burnout is a long-term stress reaction that may express itself as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (an attitude of indifference or lack of empathy), and a reduced sense of achievement.

In a study completed by researchers from the American Medical Association, Mayo Clinic, Stanford University School of Medicine, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine measured physician burnout by assessing emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, work-life integration, and professional fulfillment.

According to this study, burnout increased sharply among physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, 62.8% of physicians showed signs of burnout, compared to 38.2% in 2020. Since we know that burnout significantly impacts turnover and quality of care, this high rate of burnout has potentially disastrous effects on the industry. On a personal level, physician burnout also “contributes to broken relationships, alcoholism, and physician suicide.”

The Physician Shortage

We're already experiencing a physician shortage in the U.S., which is only expected to get worse. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, we'll experience a shortage of 37,800-124,000 physicians by 2034 in both primary and specialty care positions.

The majority of physicians studied who suffer from burnout experienced increased depersonalization and emotional exhaustion due to “occupational distress.” Much of this stress is attributed to the pervasive COVID-19 pandemic, draining healthcare workers as hospitals remain full of active COVID-19 cases. There are additional stressors related to COVID-19, such as healthcare workers constantly combating misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines, and battling an increasing distrust of science. 

Other contributors to burnout include inefficiencies in the workplace, which include lagging technology, increased workload, tedious administrative tasks, and politicization of healthcare resulting in changing regulations. 

So, what can we do about it?

There are four practices you should embrace now to combat the growing physician shortage early.

  1. Mental well-being: Encourage and respond to physician mental health and well-being regularly. Offer mental health resources to healthcare workers, such as self-care training or peer support groups. Ensure physicians have the opportunity to be open about mental health and burnout concerns, and act on the information received.
  2. Work-life balance: Work with individual physicians to improve work-life balance by making adjustments to scheduling such as offering flexible schedules and hybrid schedules to accommodate remote work. Consider implementing a cap on hours worked as well.
  3. Stressors: Focus on improving known stressors. This can include reducing excessive administrative tasks using technology to streamline paperwork, and updating outdated technology that causes delays and frustrations.
  4. Development: Offer employee development opportunities, particularly among leadership. According to Mayo Clinic, physician burnout decreases by 3.3% when there is a 1% increase in their immediate supervisor’s leadership score.

Physician burnout has been a consistent and increasing concern since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We are currently experiencing a physician shortage that is only expected to grow over the next 12 years. However, there’s hope: the healthcare industry as a whole can implement these solutions now to mitigate current and anticipated burnout in the coming years.

What steps has your organization taken to address this rising issue? Please share in the comments section below!