Doctor burnout is prevalent among doctors in the US. According to Medscape’s 2020 National Physicians Burnout & Depression Report, more than 40% of physicians are burned out, but doctors in some specialties—and generations—are suffering more than others.
In this Q&A blog post interview, you will learn about Dr. Dawn Baker’s thoughts on doctor burnout, how she’s dealing with doctor burnout, and some tips/strategies based from her experiences. Are you part of the 40% of physicians experiencing doctor burnout? This blog post might be helpful for you!
Dawn L. Baker MD, MS is the founder of Practice Balance. She became interested in writing about wellness as a lover of language and outdoor athlete who experienced a major health crisis during residency training. Through her writing, coaching, and speaking, Dawn inspires others to develop their own individual practice of balance via self-knowledge and self-awareness. She has been featured on numerous podcasts such as The White Coat Investor and national syndicates such as KevinMD and Medpage Today. A board certified anesthesiologist, wife and mother, Dawn also enjoys travel, rock climbing, strength training, and yoga in addition to the simple pleasure of taking walks with her family.
Initial Thoughts on Doctor Burnout
Please tell us a bit about your personal story, growing up, and medical training.
What made you develop interest in becoming an advocate of doctor burnout? What motivated you?
- I pursued medicine as a second career (my first was chemical engineering) in my late 20’s, after an extended period of world travel to rock climb sparked a desire in me to do two things: have the ability to work in many different locales (as opposed to following a particular industry), and serve a more diverse group of people. Medicine marries science and service, and doctors are needed everywhere in the world.
- But once I got halfway through residency, my own feelings of burnout caused me to question this career change. In my first year or two of residency, I was pushing hard to be all the things to all the people. I wanted to be voted chief resident, land the competitive fellowship spot, be the perfect wife, and become a mom all while providing the highest care to my patients and continuing to be at the top of my physical fitness game as a longtime rock climber. It’s exhausting just writing all this now! My steam engine slowed to a grinding halt. I developed sleep disturbance, amenorrhea, daytime fatigue, difficulty focusing on my duties, and a severe anhedonic depression. I felt incredible shame for not being able to “hack it”, and the true blow was the reality that I had lost my fertility as a married woman in her mid-30’s who was finally trying to start a family. Through the help of a coach, the guidance of a physician, and the blessing of my program director, I made the difficult decision to take a family leave from residency.
- Motivated to improve my health, I took a deep dive into techniques to lower my stress. I continued with gentle exercise and yoga. I studied meditation styles. I read numerous books about wellness. I saw mental health practitioners. I participated in silent retreats and nature trips. I journaled every day. It was during solitude that the idea for my blog PracticeBalance was born. I wanted to share with others what I had learned about stress management and the avoidance of burnout.
What is Doctor Burnout?
Doctor Burnout Definition & Experiences
From your perspective, what do you think are the primary causes of doctor burnout?
How did you deal with doctor burnout early in your family medicine career? Tell us about your coping mechanisms.
Do you think ‘doctor burnout’ varies by specialty? If there is such a thing, what specialties experience doctor burnout the most?
Do you know of anyone who ended their medicine career because of doctor burnout? If yes, could you share with us a brief story?
- Burnout happens when the everyday stressors in our experience as physicians hit an inflection point: one where no vacation, weekend off, change of teams or other bandage will reverse the feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion. There are lots of statistics out there about the incidence of burnout by medical specialty; however, the reality is that no specialty is immune to burnout. The thing I found most interesting during my study of stress and burnout is that the way people experience them is highly individual. One person will view the same stressor in a completely different way than another… and this is a good thing to know because 1) it removes the shame aspect from stress and burnout and 2) we are able to deal with these stressors better by gaining a deeper sense of self-knowledge. For this reason, I write and speak extensively about how self-knowledge is the key to many aspects of success in career, family, and health.
- My burnout story also took an interesting turn, one that led to a great lesson in self-care. Part of the workup of the symptoms I was experiencing was getting an MRI of my brain. I put this off for months due to my busy schedule, and frankly, I didn’t want to think about it during my leave while I was focusing on my mental health. It seemed like one extra hoop to jump through that wouldn’t yield any answers. I begrudgingly got the MRI after fixing my mental health but still suffering physically, and there it was: a large pituitary adenoma compressing my optic nerve, causing all sorts of hormonal disruptions and peripheral blindness.
- Lack of adequate self-knowledge, self-care, and coping mechanisms is what truly leads to burnout. The circumstances are there no matter what your specialty (the EMR, the long hours, the intense relationships, etc.), and each of us has a choice in how we react to them. My self-care was so poor that I allowed myself to go blind without even knowing it! I became a patient in my own OR, my own ICU, and the experience shaped everything about who I am today: the way I practice medicine, why I choose to do my nonclinical work in this area, and how I live my life outside of medicine.
A Doctor Burnout Platform
Practice Balance – A Platform that Aims to Address Work Balance and Doctor Burnout
What is ‘Practice Balance’? As a platform that aims to address doctor burnout, what is your brand’s unique value proposition? Tell us the story behind its creation.
Generally, how do you help people in the US who are battling doctor burnout? Do you provide any services, courses, coaching, etc?
- I started my blog to share my experiences and learning about stress management as an early career physician. I also chronicled what it’s like to be a patient, my multi-year journey through infertility and then motherhood, and lessons I’ve learned practicing the balancing act of work, home, community, and personal roles in my life. It’s grown into include public speaking and now wellness coaching.
- Through Practice Balance, my aim is to help busy professionals rediscover their purpose and make better decisions on their path to intentional living. I focus on the keys to better mental and physical health: mindfulness, self-care, and self-knowledge.
Favorite book that talks about doctor burnout
Could you share your favorite resources that could help manage doctor burnout?
Favorite bloggers that are advocates of doctor burnout
- What works to help one person avoid burnout may not help another. That said, I read a few books during my initial stress management and burnout research that I really liked: The Resilient Physician, The Resilient Clinician, The Mindfulness Solution, and Full Catastrophe Living.
- Nowadays, physicians can find so much information and support on social media. There are numerous Facebook groups for doctors by specialty, background, nonclinical interest, etc. Social media gets a bad rep for lots of reasons, but it has truly become the new “doctor’s lounge,” where physicians can bond over shared experiences and provide each other with support in a semi-anonymous fashion. There are also many doctors recording podcasts – a very efficient way to gain information and inspiration. Some great ones that come to mind are Doctors Unbound, Doctor Me First, Docs Outside the Box, and Brave Enough, but there are many more.
- Thankfully, there are now many blogs that address burnout-related topics, from self-knowledge and self-care like my blog practicebalance.com, to financial literacy such as thephysicianphilosopher.com, to beautiful, reflective essays from reflectionsofamillenialdoctor.com. There’s a voice out there talking about burnout that will resonate with you! I follow too many to mention here, but another great way to find blogs you might like to explore further is to peruse the burnout subtopics on syndicated blogs like kevinmd.com and doximity.com.
- Lastly, I want to mention coaching. I can’t talk enough about how useful a coach can be when you’re feeling stuck and burned out. Talking with a coach, either one on one or in a group setting, can really help you find clarity and make changes before the negative sequelae of burnout overcome you. I’m a part of the Physician Coaching Alliance (physiciancoachingalliance.com), which is a group of coaches with all sorts of specific niches and interests. Some of us have our own blogs, courses, and podcasts.
- My all-time favorite quote is “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.” – Ghandi
Lessons About Doctor Burnout
Tips for Those Who Are Experiencing Extreme Doctor Burnout
Many physicians in the US are battling doctor burnout and they don’t know how to attain work-life balance. As an advocate of doctor burnout, what do you think physicians should do to avoid experiencing it?
What do you think are the best coping mechanisms for doctor burnout? Mention a few that have worked for you.
Any tips and/or strategies on how they can attain work-life balance?
- Like stress management, work-life balance is highly individual. It’s also fluid. I like to think of balance like an orchestra: the various roles you hold in your life (physician, parent, child, spouse, runner, knitter, mentor, friend, gourmet food enthusiast, etc.) are the different instruments. Sometimes many are playing together in full symphony mode, but never are they all making music at the same volume and intensity. Often, some instruments are “resting” while others are playing duets or solos. Basically, we can balance many things in our lives, but we can’t do them all at the same time with the same level of focus and efficacy. Depending on the season of your life, some of your roles and interests must go on the back burner, and we need to allow them to be either happening at a low level, or in full rest mode. This is often difficult for high achieving doctors to accept.
- The key to prioritizing our different roles and achieving balance is becoming more self-aware. Doctors are trained to sacrifice their own well-being for that of their patients, but they must focus on themselves in order to stay physically and mentally healthy. They must spend time reflecting on their specific personalities and values (journaling is great for this), and they must try different self-care modalities so they figure out what works well for them.
As a Physician Entrepreneur – Challenges and Tips
You are a physician entrepreneur. In your journey towards becoming a successful physician entrepreneur, what are some of the major challenges you faced?
Please share any key advice you have for budding physician entrepreneurs.
- To be honest, I would still consider myself a budding physician entrepreneur! I do my nonclinical work because I have a deep passion for it, not because I seek to maximize income from it. I’m still learning as I continue to expand from just writing articles to speaking and coaching.
Final Thoughts on Doctor Burnout
This is an open ended question. Please feel free to share your closing thoughts.
For physicians who are looking for great resources on doctor burnout – What is the best way for them to get in touch with you?
- I love to write and have several years’ worth of posts on my blog. There’s also a section of guest posts, interviews, and podcast appearances. If you’d like to get in touch with me for speaking or coaching, please visit my Work With Me page, where you can contact me via email or schedule a call. Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts here!
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