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Find Your Passion: Reversing Physician Burnout


The number of physicians experiencing burnout is on the rise. Some doctors report that having a hobby they are passionate about can help reduce the impact of their stressful job.

Photo courtesy of Walter L. Nieves, MD

According to a Medscape lifestyle report, the percentage of physicians experiencing burnout has increased 6% in two years. In 2013, just under 40% responded positive in this category. In 2015, it was 46%. This is nearly one-half of practicing doctors.

Walter L. Nieves, MD, a seasoned neurologist, has read similar statistics. He reflects:

“I do not think that young physicians today are much different than the group I studied with. At Columbia it was a highly selected, competitive and bright group of people motivated to succeed and willing to sacrifice their time and energy for a compensation in the future. Some of the students were accomplished musicians, some enjoyed sports, basketball and the like, some were very social and could be counted on to go see a movie and grab a beer afterwards. Some were married and some were in intense relationships, but the majority just enjoyed having a day off now and then. The intensity however of the academic environment was famous and a good friend of mine had a psychotic break just days prior to receiving an MD-PhD.

“Another good friend became a pulmonologist and developed severe headaches never to return to practice.”

My own experience is not much different. One of my classmates overdosed on heroin while in residency. Another, similar to Dr. Nieves’ friend, had a psychotic break. The location was most inconvenient. It was on an airplane that was then forced to land precipitously.

These examples of Nieves and my own are certainly extreme. Still, they demonstrate how some doctors lose their struggle meeting the demands of medical school, residency, and finally practice. Many more are simply miserable but plow on in a state of burnout.

Dr. Nieves continues:

Too often for the medical student, the world is presented as an inherently hostile place in which security and happiness are not necessarily compatible. The medical student in reaching for approval and recognition attaches importance to ‘winning’ and winning does not mean one has found happiness but rather that a coveted residency has been obtained or a high-value contract to be the employee of a high-profile HMO or hospital. Having obtained these positions the competition does not cease and productivity, financial goals, recognition for a scientific paper now drive the competitive mechanisms that do not respond to the human needs such as feeding curiosity, creativity, family and pleasurable activities. The insecurity that emanates from the feeling that only winning a completion is what counts generates and feeds on itself and thus the very search for security creates insecurity and fear of failure.”

These feelings often culminate in a workaholic—someone who needs to work to the exclusion of other healthy options in life. I wrote about this a few years for Physician’s Money Digest, Workaholism: A Professional Addiction. It is no accident, I suspect, that one of the topics most written about for the digest is burnout.

One prescription for this common malady of physicians is releasing the mind to another activity. Dr. Kevin Eschleman and colleagues from San Francisco State in California reported that creative hobbies can not only make a person happier but improve job performance as well. Dr. Nieves clearly supports this point of view, “Having an outside passion…is not an option but rather a necessity that spells the difference between true emotional success and disaster.”

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