Physician stress in inevitable. Between busy schedules, endless emails, difficult patients or their family, and your personal life, your days are not structured to be a breeze. It is important that you can recognize your stressor(s) throughout your day to develop healthy and effective coping mechanisms‌, so you do not become burned out at your position.

What should you be looking for? Symptoms are broken down into three categories: physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, and behavioral symptoms. You may find that you identify with one category more than another or feel equal across the board. It is also important to recognize if any of these symptoms are constant or only happen on rare occasions.

Physical stress symptoms include items like always feeling tired, being or feeling sick more than usual, headaches, aching muscles, or changes in sleeping or eating. If you have a week of bad sleep due to noisy construction near your home or a sick child, more than likely this is a one-off situation and not stress leading to burnout. However, if you recognize you’ve began to never feel hungry and feel fatigued daily this can be sign. Take a moment to reflect on why you are facing these symptoms. Is it due to a hard workout the day before or because the stress is causing your shoulders to be tight? Take a moment to reflect once you’ve identified the issue to determine if this a one-off experience or a constant experience for you.

Emotional stress symptoms include persistent feelings of self-doubt or helplessness, feeling detached from others, loss of motivation, or negative outlook on life and work. You may notice that you have slowly evolved from an eager physician determined to do their best every day to loathing the thought of speaking to another patient or having to fill out one more document. You may begin to feel overwhelmed from the number of patients you see to the stack of charting that you still need to get through. Once again it is important to recognize is this a special case or is this a constant? If it is the latter, talk with a member of your HR team or to a department member about what can be done.

You also need to recognize if these thoughts are valid. For instance, if you are having an off day and a patient or their family member starts demeaning you by telling you that you are terrible at what you do and those thoughts of self-doubt or worthlessness multiply, but the next day you are fine, probably not a sign of burnout. If those thoughts begin to creep in out of nowhere and stay for most of the work week, this can be a bigger issue. Once again reaching out to a member of HR or a department member may lead you to help like counseling or a support group.

Behavioral stress signs include isolating yourself from others, using alcohol or other substances to cope, lashing out at colleagues, friends, or family members, or neglecting responsibilities. This does not mean if you decline to hang out with a friend one night you are isolating yourself, but if you find that you are declining invitations more often than not or the thought of spending time with others is on par with torture, it’s time to determine if you are isolating yourself. You need to recognize if you are withdrawing from activities you enjoy because this is a sign of burnout.

If you are experiencing these symptoms what can you do? Recognize them early on so you can make a healthy plan to combat the symptoms of burnout. Here are some tips:

Make a schedule for yourself.

Buy a planner to help schedule out your day by marking off hours you will be at work and personal time. This can help you recognize items important to you like your children’s activities, workout classes, meetings, and more. By seeing which days are busiest you can start to plan your week out easier. I.e. If Monday’s require you to be at the office from 7:00am – 5:00pm it’s probably not a good idea to plan on doing chores that night. Instead opt for a stress relief activity like reading, working out, meditation, playing video games, or just spending time with your family or friends. Then schedule out duties like chores on lighter days or the weekend.

Plan time off.

Many Americans do not utilize their paid vacation days for fear of what will go on at the office without them. Make sure that you do take vacation time (it was given to you for a reason) and disconnect from work. This means no answering phone calls or emails instead of enjoying a break from your office (unless there is an actual emergency that you need to attend to). Instead, enjoy time off getting caught up on housework, taking a trip, or spending time with friends or family.

Find activities you enjoy that reduce stress.

This may mean that you and your dog take a walk together, or you spend time playing video games with friends. It is important to find a hobby or activity that is stress relieving and healthy. This means that you should not start smoking, vaping, drinking alcohol, or turn to other substances for stress relief. It may seem like a good idea to have a couple of drinks a night to blow off steam, but this can lead to excessive drinking or health issues.

All in all, you know yourself better than anyone else, so it is important that you have the tools to recognize your stress before it turns into burnout and causes you to leave your current position. 

Hayley Woszczynski

Hayley Woszczynski - Physician & Program Relations Manager. You can stay connected with me on LinkedIn for all of the latest PracticeMatch articles and upcoming events.