The Ultimate Responsibility: Self-Care as a Physician

Posted on Monday, July 19, 2021

Author: Amelia Willes



Burnout is a serious challenge that jeopardizes both the well-being of physicians and the quality of care they provide to their patients. Burnout can be defined as “ a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment.”1 A 2018 national survey done by the Canadian Medical Association found that burnout affects 30% of physicians, with residents, women and early-career physicians being the most vulnerable.2 It is crucial that we take steps to prevent and address this issue so that physicians and our healthcare system can reach their full potential.

The best place to start is recognizing the signs. Indications of burnout include emotional exhaustion, an inability to concentrate, difficulty doing everyday tasks, distancing oneself from their work and even physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches. Burnout is often a sign that there is something wrong in the work environment, such as excessive workloads, long hours, high patient volumes, lack of control or negative leadership.3 If this is the case, it’s essential that meaningful and sustainable changes are implemented and that strong efforts are made to improve workplace conditions.

The positive side to this situation is that once the signs have been recognized, burnout is easily reversible if institutions and individuals invest in solutions. For example, a healthcare institution can take action by acknowledging their employee’s concerns and assist them with finding appropriate care. They can also introduce initiatives that minimize the stigma associated with mental health and illness, helping to reduce professional barriers that physicians may face when seeking help.

The individual also plays a significant role in preventing burnout. The first step for physician self-care is to meet the fundamental needs such as eating, drinking and sleeping regularly. In addition, make time for your hobbies, interests and relationships outside of medicine in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Transitioning from work life to home life can also be stressful. Physicians should discuss their symptoms with their families and brainstorm how their loved ones can best support them. The final step is to try and control stress levels by making mindful decisions and checking in with yourself throughout each day. The Canadian Medical Association provides a list of questions to ask yourself during your workday, such as am I distracted or anxious? Do I need a mental break? What do I want to feel today? What am I scared of? Can I do something with those feelings right now? What do I need to bring that would be helpful to my team?4  Once you have some answers, listen to your body and do what’s best for you. Remember, self-care is your duty as a physician.

1 Maslach C, Jackson S. The Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual. 1997. Accessed 6 July 2021.

2 Canadian Medical Association. CMA NATIONAL PHYSICIAN HEALTH SURVEY. 2018. Accessed 6 July 2021.

3 Canadian Medical Association. Burnout 101: Signs and Strategies. 24 July 2020. Accessed 6 July 2021.

4 Canadian Medical Association. Burnout 101: Signs and Strategies. 24 July 2020. Accessed 6 July 2021.

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