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How To Avoid Burnout As A Doctor

Published on: 20 Apr 2023

Avoiding doctor burnout

Author: Julia Sinclair-Brown

Let’s face it, nobody entered the medical profession thinking it would be an easy job! Most people would have been aware of the shift work and long hours required, as well as the need to relocate to fulfil a training rotation.

However, as we know, the NHS is now being tested to the limit, beyond anything any of us have seen before – burnout is rife in the medical profession, affecting not only doctors’ health but greatly impacting patient safety too. 


What is burnout?

Burnout is a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation – a “negative, callous” detachment from your job – and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment.

The recovery from burnout can take months or longer, therefore it’s important to try to avoid it in the first place through preventative strategies. 


The following advice may help:


1. Recognise your stress levels

Your first step is to recognise and acknowledge that you are feeling stressed. A huge tendency of doctors is to plough on regardless  – they feel obligated to their teams and patients and put themselves last on the list when it comes to self-care. But ignoring stress for too long can make matters worse. So accept it, reflect on how you are feeling, and admit that you are finding it difficult to cope.  


2. Take control over the things you CAN change

Focus on changes that could make a difference. Many things won’t be changeable at work, so it is not worth wasting your energy on these. But small changes in the right places can be transformative.

For example, identify any easy wins that might reduce your admin tasks. Talk to your supervisor/manager at work, as well as your colleagues – are they struggling with the same issues as you? Can you identify any changes that could be made easily and would benefit you all?

If you’ve exhausted all avenues, is there an opportunity to reduce your hours at work? Are you able to cut right back on any external commitments that are work-related, such as private work or extra roles? Can you reduce your consulting or clinic times?

Are there other commitments in your personal life that aren’t essential that could temporarily be put on hold, such as voluntary work (unless you find it energising?)


3. Set firm boundaries

Say no to extra work and be clear as to what you are taking on. Know your limits. If you struggle to do so, read a book on improving your assertiveness skills or enrol on a quick online course.

Learning these skills can be important in protecting your valuable time, both in and out of the workplace.


4. Seek out social support at work 

Plenty of research has confirmed that social support can ameliorate the negative effects of stress. The key issue for most doctors is having the time to socialise with colleagues.

But sometimes just a quick chat or coffee can offer the chance to engage with others. Sharing problems and feeling like you aren’t alone can help to improve your coping skills. 


5. Look after yourself 

This is an obvious topic and no doubt, many doctors are well-versed in advising their patients to adopt healthy living strategies. But doctors need to do this for themselves too.

Much research has been carried out highlighting how doctors are sleep-deprived. We can all manage a night or two of disturbed sleep, but when it is ongoing, it can be harmful to our health, affects our ability to perform well in our jobs, and is a key factor in burnout.

Therefore, it’s really important to ensure you are doing everything you can to equip yourself for the best possible sleep, particularly if you are working shift patterns. The Sleep Charity has some top tips.


6. Consider your overall health

What changes can you make to improve your lifestyle?  Can you fit in some exercise somewhere in your week? What are you eating? Can you make changes to your diet which are quick and easy to implement? Are you drinking enough water?

Is there anything you enjoy that helps you feel “in flow” and is there any way to incorporate that into your week? Setting aside time for mindfulness exercises, breathing techniques, even just 5-10 minutes, can be an immensely powerful way to reduce stress at work.


7. And finally, seek help

If all of this just sounds impossible and you recognise that you are at a breaking point, I would urge you to speak to someone as soon as possible. You need to organise time off work and access help.

After reflection, you may feel that medicine is no longer a sustainable career for you and, if that’s the case, it may be time to explore other career options. But time away may give you a sense of perspective and the ability to return with a new approach to work that is sustainable.


Julia Sinclair-Brown is a career coach specialising in supporting medical and healthcare professionals through a broad range of services. You can contact her via the website