Physician Burnout Statistics, Definition, and Treatment with Personal Productivity

I work in an academic hospital and have personally known 3 physician suicide victims including residents, fellows, and attendings. I started to really wonder, what has been causing such an epidemic and are their ways to treat or prevent it.

I am not a burnout expert, but I have been reading more into it and want to share my findings in this post. I want to first describe the current state of physician burnout including definitions, causes, and symptoms.  

I would then like to introduce a novel way of thinking about burnout and possibly using Personal Productivity as a solution and treatment to prevent burnout for medical students, physicians as well as healthcare professionals in general. 

Summary of Medscape 2019 Physician Burnout Rates – Statistics by Specialty

Every year Medscape publishes data on physician burnout rates. 

 This year the latest survey (2019) had over 15,000 responses to the survey from over 29 different specialties. The data is self-reported so there will be some bias, but it is the best data we currently have to assess the state of physician burnout. I don’t like the way that Medscape presents it’s data and if they submitted their findings as a research paper it probably would not have been accepted or would need significant revisions.

Anyways here is how I would have like the data reported if it were an abstract form (I did not include ALL data, just what I thought was most relevant): 

Introduction: Physician burnout is prevalent among many specialties. Current and accurate data on physician burnout is important in determining which specialties are most affected and how this can be prevented or treated.

Methods: A burnout survey was sent to all Medscape physicians across 29 specialties from July 27 through October 16, 2018. Inclusion criteria were Medscape physician member practicing in the United States. 

Results: 15,069 physicians responded to the survey with 38% of respondents being female and a median age range of 50-59 years old. Burnout rate was reported to be 44% among all physicians. 50% of women vs 39% of men reported burnout. 1% of respondents reported attempted suicide and 14% of respondents report having had thoughts of suicide. 

TABLE of Medscape Physician Burnout Rate Statistics – by Specialty

Conclusions (my own): The percentage of physician self-reported burnout is staggering in this study. Interpretation of this data should be interpreted cautiously given it is self-reported, limited distribution only to Medscape subscribed physicians, and may not accurately reflect the entire physician population. 

Physician Burnout Causes and Symptoms

Causes of Physician Burnout

The causes of burnout are undeniably multifactorial.

The 2019 Medscape self reported data suggests the three Biggest Contributing Factors to be:

  1. Too many bureaucratic tasks – 59%
  2. Spending too many hours at work – 34%%
  3. Increasing computerization of practice (EHR) – 32%

An interesting article by Drummond et al, states the underlying cause of physician burnout is actually depletion from physicians’ “energy accounts” (Drummond 2015).

“We withdraw energy from this account for the activities of our life and work. We deposit energy to this account during times of rest and rebalance. Burnout occurs when there is a negative balance over time.”

Drummond 2015

Burnout signs and symptoms

Below is a table with some common Burnout signs and symptoms. When these symptoms are seen in yourself or others these may be red flags of pre-burnout or actual burnout. 

Feeling Chronically Tired
Loss of Motivation
Cynicism
Violent Behavior
Substance Abuse
Procrastination
Decreased Satisfaction with Life and Hobbies
Feeling Helpless

What is the Definition of Physician Burnout?

I was intrigued when trying to learn more about the origins of the definition of physician burnout. During my medical career, no one ever really ever gave me a definition for burnout. We talk about it like everyone should know what it is. Is it just subjective feelings of not liking your career anymore or is it more of a subclinical state of depression?

So it looks like The Wolrd Health Organization (WHO) has an actual definition of physician burnout and it can be found HERE. To summarize see below:

The World Health Organization (WHO) and ICD-11 Definition of Burnout

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. 

It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

These three diagnostic dimensions of Physician Burnout were originally identified by Christina Maslach and her team back in the 1970’s. You can read some original articles HERE and another one HERE

Alternative Definition of Physician Burnout

However, I’m not sure I agree how the WHO reports that burnout only refers to the “occupational context” and “should not be applied to experiences in other areas of life.

To me, if I had to define burnout it would simply equate to more commitments than you can cope with physically, mentally, or emotionally at a specific point in your life. This applies to our occupation in additional to our personal life.

Or I can simplify it further by stating burnout risk increases when you have more commitments than your Personal Productivity System can handle.  

Physician Burnout Treatment and Prevention

So if burnout is simply reframed as not being able to complete your commitments with the physical, mental, or emotional resources you have, then the solution to burnout can also be simplified. 

Decrease your Commitments and/or Improve your Productivity System

To decrease your burnout risk, you can either DECREASE your commitments and/or IMPROVE your personal productivity system!

Unfortunately, some of the commitments we have are fixed and difficult to decrease. For example, you can’t expect to be a medical student and say “I don’t want to take any tests because it stresses me out.”

But there are many commitments that we take on that we really don’t have to. Think about all of the times you have said “Yes” to projects that really didn’t mean that much (read more about being Busy vs Productive). Months or years later some of these projects are still not complete and increase your burnout risk. Decreasing or eliminating many non-essential commitments in your life is probably the fastest and most effective way to decrease burnout. After eliminating non-essential commitments, the next best step is to improve your personal productivity system to more efficiently execute the actual commitments you need to complete.

Here is where I have found increasing your personal productivity system comes in. Let me explain.

How doing LESS makes you MORE Productive

When most people think of productivity, they think of being able to do MORE tasks. Ironically this is not the case. Being productive means efficiently doing more of the RIGHT tasks and getting rid of tasks that have little meaning or purpose in your life. 

By optimizing your productivity system, you will actually list out all of the projects going on in your life and start to see which ones you need to cut out and which ones you need to prioritize. How many of us actually do this? Or are most of us just doing things that arise with no sense of prioritization of our tasks?

If you are persistently doing shallow tasks that have little to no meaning while important projects are put to the side, you will unlikely feel any sense of accomplishment. You will also end the day stressed because you felt like you worked all day but didn’t really complete anything. There is a feeling of little to no progress on the really important things in your life.

However, what if every day you prioritized completing the Most Important Tasks in your life? And you also create a process to quickly do all of your shallow tasks by batching them throughout the day. It’s a win-win situation because you are still able to complete your Most Important Tasks AND your Shallow Tasks each day, in the same amount of time you used to use on only shallow tasks! I ensure you will feel a sense of accomplishment with this process and I have found this as a means to decrease burnout risk for myself and others. 

HOW Does Personal Productivity Decrease Burnout?

The simple answer is that a personal productivity system helps you sort out all of the PRIORITIES in your life so you can work as efficiently as possible to complete your priorities while ALSO efficiently completing all of the shallow tasks in your life. 

How is this possible? The process is actually quite simple and if you would like to learn all the details about how to create a complete productivity system in 12 steps, you can get a free PDF below:

Okay, Let’s go over the basics of how Personal Productivity works to help fight burnout! It starts with having a process to declutter, organize, and process things in your physical, digital, and mental workspaces.

Declutter and Organize your Physical Workspace and Digital Workspace:

The first concept to understand is that clutter is the ultimate enemy of productivity. Clutter can be present on our physical desk, computer, and email. The reason we have so much clutter is that we don’t have an efficient way to process all the incoming clutter.

Clutter in any form, whether physical, digital, or mental distracts us from focusing 100% on our Most Important Tasks. If you are not 100% focused you won’t be able to maximally complete a task at hand. 

Creating an efficient way to process all future incoming clutter will prevent it from reaccumulating in the future. 

Declutter and Organize the MIND to Set your Priorities

In addition to the physical and digital workspace, the Mind is one largest potential spaces for clutter. 

There are so many unprocessed projects and commitments in the mind that we never think about but are increasing our risk of burnout. 

Perform a complete “Mind Dump” by listing out all of the projects in your life. Only then will you see all of your current commitments laid out. When this happens, you can then start to prioritize projects and mercilessly cut out any projects that are outdated or have little meaning in your life. This is the first step in reducing burnout, by decreasing the amount of commitments in your life! Now you can prioritize the most important tasks in your life. 

Batch Shallow Tasks

One of the biggest reasons we can’t complete important tasks is because we are continuously doing shallow tasks all day long. A productivity system will enable you to batch these shallow tasks efficiently and process them only once or twice a day. Now you can use the majority of your day to complete your most important work!

Batching Shallow Tasks to Save Time

A life of Productivity Without Burnout

This post is just perspective on how I used personal productivity to decrease burnout in my own life and I have seen work for others that I have mentored. I’ve seen stressed/burned out students and physicians be at peace and work much more effectively when they implement these simple principles. 

Prioritizing the truly meaningful things in your life such as your family, health, finances, and professional projects, can give your life significantly more meaning. Your personal productivity system will allow you to understand exactly what commitments are going on in your life and whether you can actually take on more or not. 

Once you truly understand the commitments in your life and how much you can actually do (your productivity system), you will not only start to treat your burnout, but you will prevent burnout by not overcommitting to others and to you yourself. Find out more and take the first steps towards a life of productivity without burnout by subscribing to our newsletter below!

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I think you hit the nail on the head that the best way to prevent burnout is to make yourself more efficient so you that you minimize the time and effort required on those tasks that will likely flame the fires of burnout.

Dr. McFrugal
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You’re absolutely right. I don’t think burnout is solely an occupational matter. Holistically, everything in your life (professional life AND personal life) contributes to burnout.

I have seen situations where people are over-committed and overwhelmed in their personal life to the point at which it spills over to their professional life. Like you said, in this case a personal productivity system and the principles of essentialism would help such individuals.

Regarding the top 3 reasons for physician burnout, increasing efficiency and productivity would definitely help too.

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