Stress & Burnout…Even Doctors Get It Too

Met a colleague the other day in the hospital corridor who appeared uncharacteristically aloof and disinterested when we were discussing about a mutual patient we were managing. Taking into account his body language, it didn’t take too long to realise that he was exhibiting symptoms of burnout. A recent issue of the Archives of Surgery highlighted that as many as 38% of surgeons get burnout. It lists 10 reasons why doctors get burnout:

  • Length of training and delayed “gratification”


    Burnout...A Common Condition Among Doctors Too

  • Long working hours and enormous workloads
  • Imbalance between career and family
  • Feeling isolated / not enough time to connect with colleagues
  • Financial issues (salary, budgets, insurance issues)
  • Grief and guilt about patient death or unsatisfactory outcome
  • Insufficient protected research time and funding
  • Sex- and age-related issues
  • Inefficient and/or hostile work environment
  • Setting unrealistic goals or having them imposed on oneself

I can add one more…the increasing threat of medical litigation!


Stress or Burnout? There Are Vital Differences Between The Two

So what is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation in your work, leading to loss in productivity and  leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful.

The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life – including your domestic and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.

Its also important to differentiate between being stressed and burnout…those under stress are aware that if everything is put under control, things would be better; whereas those who are burntout often don’t realise they are there already and often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situation.

On the road to burnout?

You could very well be if you agree with the following statements:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re just plain tired all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent unproductively on tasks you find dull or overwhelming.
  • Nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

Take this quiz to see if you are suffering from job burnout here.

8 responses

  1. Yeah, got burnt out in my last job. Wish had quit earlier, except didn’t realise I was burnt out till late. More people need to know the warning symptoms and your article is a positive step in that direction!
    Cheers, mate!

  2. Doc,

    Each person can tolerate different levels of stress. Some people can handle more stress more than others. Two questions:

    (1) Could stress-tolerant level be increased? [Just like increasing ones stamina?] If yes, how could it be done?
    (2) Would the symptoms of burnt-out be the same for all cases?


    Doctor2008 says: How much stress you can withstand depends a lot on the state of your mental and physical fitness as well as whether you adopt stress management techniques!
    In general, burnout symptoms would be similar:

    * Feeling tired and drained most of the time
    * Lowered immunity, feeling sick a lot
    * Frequent headaches, back pain, muscle aches
    * Change in appetite or sleep habits
    * Sense of failure and self-doubt
    * Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
    * Detachment, feeling alone in the world
    * Loss of motivation
    * Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
    * Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
    * Withdrawing from responsibilities
    * Isolating yourself from others
    * Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
    * Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
    * Taking out your frustrations on others
    * Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

  3. A nice article well put together, surprisingly clean of emotion given the scope the subject gives for feelings.

    Short, precise and to the point.

    OK, now I would like to express my feelings about interpretation. Probably the only disagreement I have. The article gives the impression that the description is absolute due to the lack of qualifying the possible degree of severity. I truly am sorry to have to say that for some of us it gets or got a whole lot worse.

    In my own case, yes I agree with the description of stress leading up to overwhelming stress and then onto burnout. What is the difference? Well when I hit burnout it was like being mentally and physically pole axed. Although I know what had happened it took 30 minutes to get to the nearest chair two steps away. 6 hours later (the time it took to build the courage and strength to go up stairs to bed, it took over two hours of excruciating mental and physical agony to climb 12 steps and walk 10 metres.

    For three months to dare to try to read a news paper lead to another pole axing, which took three long days of recovery. After six months I could be moderately mentally and physically active for two hours a day even so suffering from considerable dyslexia.

    After 2 years of careful recovery exercises I could manage a 9-5 day at the office but would go home after to sleep from 8pm to 7am the next morning. Only after 4 years that I could live a relatively normal life provided I am careful to observe the first sign of mental or physical fatigue.

    The cost? Well, I lost just about everything including self confidence. I can cope with loosing all material things but as a habitual entrepreneur the most destructive issue has been the recognition of loosing self confidence.

    What is my recommendation? Do not do it. Sounds silly I know but you do have a choice and that does not mean loosing everything so long as you take appropriate action before your stress reaches overwhelming levels.

    The dyslexia? Well that gradually faded to a tollerable level given I am aware that I now have this hazard to watch for. The bonus – it does act as one of several warning devices, that is, with growing stress levels the dyslexia increases.

    Yes, a nice article or post. Probably given the omission, the most useful I have ever read.
    Robert Denton

    Doctor2008 replies: Robert, I congratulate you on overcoming burnout the way you did; for many, it is a deep pit for which its impossible to get out of.
    Your criticism is valid..but I should add that in a concise article, it is difficult to elaborate on intricacies without making the article become a treatise!
    Still, your comments are appreciated.

  4. Dr. 2008

    Thank you for your reply.
    I respect that you are the doctor also your comment: “for many, it is a deep pit for which its impossible to get out of.”

    Not only have I studied stress and how to recover from it I have put that knowledge to supporting stressed and burnout suffers to find the resources to climb out of that pit. Initially it took me 2 years with another 2 of building and further development. Sinse then I have learnt how to reduce that to 3 months, 6 months or in severe cases perhaps a year.

    If I can help anyone a great deal is free. I write regular weblogs at Also other information can be found at and

    I have a book ‘Activating Spontaneous Healing’ that also deals with stress thinking patterns and their effect.

    Best wishes

    Robert Denton

  5. Hello Dr. 2008
    I noted your comment about patients feeling themselves in “a deep pit for which its impossible to get out of”, this triggered the following reflection.
    I might say this conclusion is derived from both my own burnout experience as well as those of my clients who consult me as a performance trainer/coach and healer.
    The reflection is this; all those I know also all those that newly contact me are trying their best to recover from overwhelming stress or burnout. Why not, after all that is the logical thing to do so why does literally everyone find it extremely difficult to achieve.
    In a nut shell, the last thing our inner intelligence wants us to do is recover to do what we did before burnout.
    So why is everyone so stuck in their pit? My conclusion is that ‘recovery’ carries the subconscious meaning of going back to where we were before the burnout. We want to be well and active again doing our life as it was before. Our subconscious which is controlling feelings of being trapped in a pit wants us in a pit to stop us from going back and doing the same thing again, which will produce the same burnout again.
    There is a battle between our conscious expectations and our unconscious will power. The proof is the constant lost battle.
    Until we stop fighting and start listening to that innate intelligence we simply remain stuck in the pit of delusion, frustration, non motivation and worst still, any that drives themselves forward with in credible determination and courage, quickly hit the wall and those efforts come to nothing. The underlying mind process is explainable.
    I have always been extremely intuitive and worked with my intuition awareness to my considerable advantage. One of the gifts or consequences of going through burnout has been the tremendous learning process about intuitive knowledge also body/intelligence. In fact acquiring this knowledge helped me to piece together a great deal about how to move forward from burnout.
    In a nut shell, the last thing our inner intelligence wants us to do is recover to do what we did before burnout. The pit, being stuck or whatever else is there for a very good reason. This is to stop recovery. This inner intelligence manages the entire body/mind of life, growth and the constant regenerative process. It wants us to survive and prosper thus recovery to what we did before is out of the question because it causes the body to produce many health damaging hormones, which threaten our life.
    Therefore, the solution to overwhelming stress or burnout is to observe how we got into the mess of burnout. With that knowledge go forward to something else, something different that will not repeat the stress – overwhelming stress – burnout cycle.
    To do this requires a complete change in thinking patterns or programs. Without correct guidance this is not easy. Even with guidance and support it is difficult for many to start with. The more a burnout sufferer goes in this direction the more their inner intelligence works with them, thus the quicker the burnout becomes a thing of the past with its pit of despair a vague memory.
    I hope the above helps just one person to see their way forward out of the burnout spiral.
    Best wishes

    Doctor2008 replies: Good on you to share your experiences so that someone out there can benefit from it. To get out of burnout by oneself is nigh impossible; professional support is mandatory.

  6. Dear Dr 2008
    I am in the process of considering putting together the initial plans for a book on managing overwhelming stress and burnout. The idea came from a client who suggested I incorporate all my articles on stress management into a manuscript.
    While I am considering this possibility I feel such a book would have greater value if written in conjunction with a qualified medical point of view.
    Is this something you would be willing to consider?
    Best wishes
    Robert Denton

    Doctor2008 replies: Please see my email reply.

  7. Stress burnout or mental breakdown? Burnout gets packaged in different ways depending on who you talk to. One thing is for certain you never completely recover from burnout. It is a long journey back from the black hole that burnout creates in your life. The answer is to stop stress in its tracks before it leads to burnout. For more information on recovering from burnout and rehabilitating to work follow my blog.


  8. I’m currently dealing with severe stress burnout & appreciated coming accross this old blog. A couple of thoughts to add to the pot. Firstly a very wise friend of mine once pointed out that whilst one visualises or associates either their physical, mental or emotional state as a pit that needs to be climbed out of they immediately put themselves in a position of struggle. (Which of course creates further stress) When she was dealing with depression she associated it with a tunnel that had to passed through one step at a time – might seem like symantics to someone on in that space but it is a very helpful & personally empowering way to relate to what is going on internally. if one is in a pit – one usually requires a helping hand to get out of it. What if there is no helping hand? However – the tunnel can be walked through with or without a guide.

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