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American Association for Physician Leadership
American Association for Physician Leadership


Burnout & Suicide: Detection and Intervention Strategies

Understand symptoms and learn strategies for crisis intervention for you and your team

Wellness - Burnout and suicide prevention
If you, a coworker, or a loved one is feeling suicidal, please call or encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at  1-800-273-8255 .  Calls are accepted 24/7 and are completely confidential.
Physician burnout: It’s a phrase with which everybody in healthcare is familiar. It’s been called an epidemic, a moral injury, a crisis, and more. The truth is, no matter how it’s labeled, burnout is a very real and distressing condition that diminishes personal and professional quality, performances and outcomes for physicians and their organizations, and – in the worst cases – too frequently leads to suicide.
As a leader, reducing physician burnout and fostering an environment of wellness should be a priority. But where should you start? You should start right here. Use this page as your go-to source for learning how to identify symptoms of burnout in yourself and others – and effective methods of resolution for yourself and your team.

Signs of physician burnout in yourself

Burnout can be difficult to diagnose because physicians often fail to recognize their own symptoms until the later stages. Complicating matters, burnout mirrors the symptoms of depression even though depression doesn’t always accompany burnout. Although not an absolute, physicians typically follow a four-stage buildup to burnout: fatigue, hindrance, frustration, and withdrawal. This progression might begin with increased fatigue and exhaustion resulting from seemingly endless to-do lists – especially if additional tasks hinder proper completion of a job. Eventually, these barriers can cause frustration, dissatisfaction and a sense of failure, leading to overwhelming feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, indifference, and withdrawal.

If you relate to any of these stages, you may be at risk of, or are currently dealing with, physician burnout. Appropriate courses of action for each respective stage can mitigate the effects of burnout and restore a sense of control.  

Recognizing burnout symptoms in a coworker or team

One way to identify burnout symptoms in others is to recognize those most susceptible to burnout  and symptoms of suicide. Physicians who are going through transition – from graduating med students competing for residency slots to physicians preparing for retirement – are considered at highest risk for burnout and suicidal ideation. Other vulnerable populations within the healthcare community include specialists like anesthesiologists and psychiatrists; women; those with a history of physical and/or mental illness; those who identify as part of the LGBTQIA community; and current or former abusers of alcohol and drugs.

Because most physicians experience occasional fatigue and frustration without the full-blown effects of burnout, it’s most useful to monitor for signs of cynicism and lack of empathy in colleagues – signs that could signal a physician is in the late stages of burnout and needs help.

As a proactive or preventative strategy, you can also encourage team members take the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which measures the three components of burnout: emotional exhaustion, feelings of loss of personal accomplishment or ineffectiveness, and depersonalization.

Individual techniques to help treat burnout

Individual methods of combatting burnout aren’t a one-size-fits-all affair; sometimes you have to try multiple activities for a period of time to discover what’s most effective for you. Many physicians swear by mindfulness , the practice of being present in a moment and being nonjudgmental of your feelings – to build resilience and increase empathy. TED talks and guided exercises on mindfulness are excellent resources for physicians who can easily access them on YouTube and in app stores.

Other morale-building techniques to prevent burnout can be something as simple as a “brag book.” This can take on the form of a scrapbook full of thank you notes from patients and families – a tangible reminder during stressful periods of why you chose to pursue medicine.

When all other burnout-reducing methods are exhausted, it might be advisable to consider pivoting in your career. While we at the American Association for Physician Leadership firmly believe that all physicians are leaders at some level, there is always a need for physicians to enter formal leadership positions. Your knowledge of the unique stressors and impediments on the clinical side of healthcare could help you drive positive, life-saving change in the C-suite.

Organization-based burnout interventions

Burnout is best battled and conquered with a combination of individual efforts and institutional support that includes workplace wellness programs and organizational policy changes. For instance, electronic health records (EHRs) are known major contributors  to burnout, so consider hiring clerics to manage EMR documentation or contracting information technology specialists to frequently provide in-clinic assistance and training. Doing so can reduce “pajama time”  and allow physicians to truly disconnect at home while striking a healthier work-life balance and alleviating the symptoms of burnout.

Another coping mechanism for physician burnout is the establishment of peer-support programs  for physicians who are dealing with stress stemming from medical errors, malpractice cases, and unintended outcomes. Events like these often stigmatize, isolate and prevent physicians from speaking out about their problems or admitting their struggles. On-site, facilitated support programs or a directory of peer supporters can give physicians a safe place to turn in an open, non-judgmental environment. 
In addition to these resources, if you, a coworker, or a loved one is feeling suicidal, please call or encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 . Calls are accepted 24/7 and are completely confidential.

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The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


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