Physician Burnout: Assessing and addressing its impact on your family

“A physician struggling under an unbearable weight of emotions, or going to work feeling like they are enduring emotional trauma can have trickle down emotional effects on family members,” writes physician and US Navy veteran Caitlin Delaney, MD.

Like many industries, health care was catapulted into a new reality during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even as communities came together to express gratitude for caregivers risking their lives to treat patients amid the pandemic, another crisis was looming in the background for years and finally reared its head: physician burnout.

As an emergency medicine doctor, stressful situations are my bread-and-butter. And as a U.S. Navy veteran, I’m no stranger to practicing medicine in less-than-ideal conditions, including in a tent hospital in Iraq. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic challenged me and demanded more from me—and other health care workers—leaving me feeling heartbroken and angry, and trying to find my way back.

Understanding Physician Burnout

Burnout occurs when an individual is pushed to extremes in their job, whether because of blurred work-life boundaries, an elevated sense of responsibility, or unreasonable demands. Burnout can make individuals feel as if they are drowning in an endless setback loop, including feelings of fatigue, detachment, depersonalization, and/or lack of concentration.

Burnout among physicians can be even more complex, going beyond too many hours or increased stress. Burnout is an individualized experience, but for physicians, it can be influenced by multiple mechanisms including moral injury, caregiver stress, and vicarious trauma.

For me, moral injury brought on by the strain of COVID led to heartbreak and anger. An article from 2020 describes my situation perfectly: “Moral injury describes the conundrum of today’s medical professionals. They know how best to care for their patients but are blocked from doing so by systemic barriers related to the business side of healthcare.”

It’s critical that health care professionals take notice of their emotions and honor their individual experiences, and also that they understand they may not meet traditional definitions of burnout because there is another important phenomenon at play.

Physician Burnout Can Affect Families

While burnout and moral injury can feel isolating for the physician, they can also impact families. A physician struggling under an unbearable weight of emotions, or going to work feeling like they are enduring emotional trauma can have trickle down emotional effects on family members.

When I asked my husband about this, he said he had been able to feel the impact of my job by proxy. We have both served in the military. When I was an ED physician during the height of COVID, my husband felt as if I were deployed—even though I was living at home—because of the intensity with which I was practicing medicine. He found it challenging to make plans as a family, and felt as if he was always on-call for our children while balancing his own job with the National Guard.

With Physician Family Day on August 27, now is the time to reflect and address any potential symptoms and spend quality time re-engaging with your loved ones. Recognized by the American Medical Association and AMA Alliance, Physician Family Day is observed every last Saturday in August to celebrate dedicated physicians and their families, and bring awareness to physician burnout.

Navigating and Alleviating Burnout

As a physician, you have numerous responsibilities—both inside and outside your job’s walls. For your patients, you’re committed to providing safe, compassionate care. But you also have a responsibility to care for your family, and potentially to provide stability in the form of a reliable income. The weight of so much responsibility can plunge a physician into burnout. Though it can feel overwhelming, there are a variety of ways to address burnout:

  • Create breathing room. Physicians work around the clock. To help alleviate the pressure of always being on, work with your employer to create a more regulated schedule. Though emergencies can arise, this time can be reallocated to family and friends, exercise (which addresses stress in the body), making changes in your career/life, or simply resting your brain in the form of doing something engaging. Doing this as early as possible when it is a choice, and before it becomes a necessity, can be very useful.
  • Reflect and plan. Burnout may drive you to question your purpose, making it imperative to take time to reflect on your passions and values. How do you ultimately want to be remembered? Similarly, reflect with your spouse and family. Spend time discussing what is best for everyone, and what changes should be made for that to happen. If you woke up in five years with the perfect job, what would it be, and what changes did you make to get there? Map out concrete steps you can take. One of the best things I did was find a physician coach to help make this process less overwhelming.
  • Engage in new, creative opportunities. Burnout can make people feel stuck. To get unstuck, I signed up for creative consulting opportunities, which led me to my new role at flipMD. flipMD gives physicians the ability to pursue their passions and explore non-clinical work while receiving additional compensation outside of their full-time career.

Burnout has unfortunately become a common and undeniable reality for physicians, and it can negatively impact both them and their families. As such, it’s important to address it as soon as it begins to manifest. The aforementioned strategies can be used to combat burnout, but there is still a need for the health care industry to further address system factors to ensure an energized and healthy workforce.

Delaney is Director of Business Development and Medical Advisor, flipMD from GoodRx.