Healthcare Burnout

Dealing with Depression and Burnout: Strategies for Physicians

It’s no secret that issues relating to mental health have been on the rise everywhere. This is especially true in the medical field, as physicians, nurses and other health professionals work beyond capacity to deal not only with the workload, but with pandemic-related health crises too. 

Here are a few eye-opening statistics:

  • During the pandemic’s 1st year, physicians made around 27% more mental health visits (31,936) compared to the year before the pandemic (26,266)
  • Approx. 29% of practicing physicians reported depression, twice the rate of adults in the U.S.
  • As many as 36% of frontline physicians are suffering from PTSD
  • 300-400 physicians die by suicide each year. Doctors are at risk far more than those in other professions.

The Difference Between Depression and Burnout

Burnout is more about a misalignment of workload, schedule, long hours, onerous tasks, work-life imbalance, and personal psychological factors, all of which can bring on high levels of emotional and physical exhaustion. Left unattended, things can devolve into withdrawal and depression. 

Depression is a serious mood disorder that affects the way you think, feel, and behave. If you suspect that you are experiencing depression, it’s best to involve a mental health professional and your primary care physician. Depression affects people from all walks of life and in all professions.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Hopelessness
  • Suicidal tendencies or thoughts about hurting yourself
  • Feeling sad or anxious
  • Changes in sleep patterns (insomnia or sleeping too much)
  • Changes in diet (eating too much, choosing junk food or having no appetite)
  • Feeling irritable or restless

What Physicians Can Do to Reduce Stress and Improve Mental Health

If you are feeling depressed, it’s important that you understand you are not alone. Don’t fear the stigma of reaching out for help. Start with your primary care physician. In addition, reach out to a psychotherapist to discuss your situation and learn about options.. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK).

Here are a few simple tips physicians can take to ease stress.

  • Give serious thought to devising ways to manage your workload more efficiently so as to minimize bottlenecks and reduce pressure.
  • If possible, begin each day with a moment of quietude or meditation, to ground and center yourself. Perhaps listen to a calming audiotape before you dive into the day.

Be aware of certain dynamics with patients that can cause undue burden. One of these is called “transference.” This can happen when a patient who is expressing frustration and anger brings up those same emotions in you. If you sense this happening, first, acknowledge it. A simple awareness that it’s going on can help you process the emotion and dispel the negative emotions connected with it. This can ensure that you are fully focused on patient needs. 

Other ideas:

  • Defuse tense situations with patients or colleagues using the techniques that you know work. For example, when dealing with an angry patient, repeat their words back to them (thus acknowledging their frustration) while showing empathy. 
  • Try to see yourself in the other person’s shoes. This will give you greater awareness and acceptance of what they are going through.

Overall, it’s wise for you to  focus on finding a better work-life balance and maximizing the use of your time. For example, strategize ways to get your notes completed at an opportune time rather than letting them pile up and then potentially stressing about them later. 

Practice such ideas of self-care in your work and professional life to improve your mental health. But always, if you believe that you are depressed or heading toward depression, seek professional advice and help.

Finally, keep in mind the advantage of practicing common sense ideas to fight mental health issues, such as sleep, exercise, and maintaining a connection with others.

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