November 15, 2019

What’s at the root of your physician burnout?

burned out matchsticks

If you’re suffering from physician burnout, do you know what’s at the root of it?

Is it too many patient hours?

All the administrative hassles?

Could anxiety be a factor?

Or is medicine simply not the right fit?

We hear the word “burnout” all the time. It affects over half of all physicians at some point in their career.

While it’s true all the changes in healthcare and the EMR have A LOT to do with the alarming burnout statistics, they are not the whole story.

In order to address your own burnout (or dissatisfaction), it can be helpful to dig down and understand which factors may be contributing in your case. Then any efforts at a solution can be targeted to the actual issues.

Do any of these factors for burnout ring true for you?

Too much of a good thing
You like being a doctor. On a good day, you enjoy your patients and being able to make a difference in their lives. But seeing patients every day, day after day, with little time for anything else, has zapped your enthusiasm. If you could cut back your schedule and be able to recharge, you would look forward to seeing patients.

Buried alive under administrative tasks
You didn’t have to take a typing test to get into medical school, but you spend more time on a keyboard than with patients. The charting keeps you up at night and there are also emails to answer, calls to make, forms to fill out, RVU’s to meet, etc. Where’s the joy? This is hardly what you pictured being a doctor would be like

No respect
You feel like you’ve lost control over how you care for patients. You are no longer in charge of your schedule or even when you (or if) you eat. Online reviews and satisfaction scores are dictating care instead of good medicine. You feel your role as a physician is being disrespected and your experience and opinions don’t matter.

Groundhog Day
It’s hard to admit that after all that training and education you’re finding yourself bored with patient care. Training was hard, but there was always something new to learn and peers to interact with. Now it seems as if every day is the same and even though the work is stressful, you’re feeling bored and asking yourself, “Is this it?”

Home is not a rest-stop
After a hard day at work, you’re not able to come home and de-stress. You may have young children to care for or elderly parents. There may be marital issues or challenges with a teen. Finances or health issues may be weighing on you. Time you would have spent exercising and having some fun is taken up by other demands. You’re running on fumes with no gas station in sight.

Anxiety’s in the driver’s seat
You worry during your off-time about certain patients. You’re afraid of missing something or having a complication. It can be hard to make treatment decisions and you find yourself asking colleagues for advice. It’s hard to enjoy work with the worry and self-doubt. You sometimes feel like an imposter and wonder if you’re cut out to be a physician.

There’s a personality mismatch
You’re an introvert. Even though you like people and 1:1 interactions, it’s exhausting to see patients every 15 minutes all day long, 5 days a week. Having to “be on” and talking a lot with people wears you out. You prefer having time to think without interruption and not talking so much. You come home drained, with little left for your family or yourself.

The shoe doesn’t fit
Although medicine seemed like a good choice – you were good at science and genuinely wanted to help people but the actual practice of medicine is not for you. You may be successful, but this career doesn’t feel like the right fit for you.

Trauma from the past
Perhaps you had a difficult childhood with a parent who was narcissistic, alcoholic, or abusive in some way. Or maybe you had experiences in medical school or residency that were traumatic. If you haven’t had the chance to work through and heal from past traumas, they can make you more susceptible to burnout. They can also sometimes show up in the present, such as working for, or with, someone who resembles an abusive parent or another challenging individual from your past.

There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to physician burnout, but I have highlighted some of the ones I see commonly.

Writing this blog brought home for me a lot of the suffering I see in the lives of my physician clients and know is there for so many.

My hope is that if you’re feeling unhappy or burned out in medicine and at a loss as to how to address this big ball of wax, having clarity on possible causes will give you a starting point for possible changes.

When I was sorting through my own desire to leave medicine, a number of these factors were at play for me. I took a lot of time while still practicing (years) to address each of them until I was left with one – the shoe doesn’t fit.

In a weird way, this echoed my life because I have a really hard time finding shoes that fit.

But the good news is I found a great pair that I’ve been wearing for the past 10 years since I started The Doctor’s Crossing.

Every step I walk in them is a step I walk for you – to give you back that spring in your step where you’re walking towards what excites and fulfills you.

If there’s a way I can help you, that’s what I’m here for. You can comment on the post or reach me directly at

‘Til next time,


If you would like recommendations for burnout based on your Enneagram Personality Type, you can read them here

Note- the blog is now being sent out on Thursday mornings ( instead of Wednesdays). 


  1. Anonymous Comment from a physician who asked not to be identified.

    Watching the blowfly crawl over the glass, I’m relieved it’s silent, at least for now. That incessant buzzing and banging about. It grates. For me it began with irritation, about the little things. Like the sound of that fly, I ignored it. An insignificant distraction. So I thought. Time proved otherwise. Medicine. A privilege, a challenge, a responsibility. First, wonder, hope and fear, soon fatigue, apprehension, disillusionment. The long hours, yes, and, sadly, the boys club. The endless striving, silent endurance, repetition, constant proving. MD, MPH, PhD. Mountain climbing, it’s exhausting. Somewhere in there my humanity slipped its moorings. Then the guilt began. Shame and a sense of failure quickly followed. I’d lost something, something important. My patients and their stories kept me going. And a work ethic that only knew 5th gear. The buzzing got louder. Soon it was me banging against the glass. A bewildered insect in a huge jar, repeatedly seeking a way out. I began to notice the same behavior in a number of my colleagues. Each of us trying for surreptitiousness, none of us succeeding. A furtive look here, a knowing glance there. But no words. To speak the feeling felt dangerous. A betrayal. Membership of the medical club is hotly contested. And revered. To want out? Heresy. A sign of a flaw within the self, not the system. Survival, and silent adherence, a badge of honor. But at what cost? First step, stop flapping so hard. Next, breathe. From there, It didn’t necessarily get easier but, slowly, it did become more possible.

    • To “Anonymous”:
      This is the most beautiful and accurate description of the journey through my medical career. Thank you for your comment!

      • I know! I totally agree. This eloquent writer has a true gift for metaphor and has captured her own experience in a way that transcends the personal and speaks for so physicians trying to figure it out and find their way.

    • Thank you Anonymous for your incredibly beautiful comment and imagery that so aptly captures the struggles of so many other physicians. If you ever write a book, it will be a gift to all lucky enough to read your poetic and powerful prose.

  2. Tim Owolabi says:

    Thanks for the relatable post Heather. As I have given myself permission not to accept burnout, I’m loving my new shoes 🙂 I echo the sentiments about the post from Anonymous. The imagery captures a feeling many of us unfortunately know well.

    • You’re most welcome Tim! Thank you for reading and commenting. Kudos to you for being proactive and changing your trajectory from burnout to loving what you do. We as physicians do not need to be victims of our circumstances. Anonymous did do a beautiful job at capturing the trap.. and she is also finding her way out. We are only trapped if we believe ourselves to be. Enjoy your new shoes and the dance as well.

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