Recognising and understanding that doctors’ health and wellbeing are key to ensuring an effective and strong profession is the first step we can take to change the culture of old, in which physicians silently endured to the point of burnout and fatigue.
General practice is an exciting and rewarding career, but the demanding nature of our work can sometimes lead to burn out. Some registrars may also experience depression during their medical training.
GPs are not alone with ‘numerous global studies involving nearly every medical and surgical specialty indicate that approximately 1 of every 3 physicians is experiencing burnout at any given time'.
Asking the question ‘how are you really?’ regularly is the first step to recognising the early signs of burn out and depression.
Before burnout even registers on your radar, the effects may be more obvious to those around you. In clinical practice we evaluate patients for red-flag symptoms, as a warning that something serious is going on. Think of these burn-out signs as red flags for your own personal well-being:
Exhaustion: When ‘tired’ is the only answer to ‘How are you?’, alarm bells should be ringing. You may not feel physically capable of getting out of bed in the morning. And when you get home, there is no energy left to do anything at all. A common thought at this point is, ‘I’m not sure how much longer I can keep going like this’.
Desensitisation: Also known as ‘compassion fatigue’. You may find it harder to be empathetic towards your patients or even become emotionally detached from your family and friends. Increasing cynicism, sarcasm, and the need to vent about your patients, or your job, are signs that your emotional energy is running dry.
Lack of meaning: You may find yourself asking ‘What’s the use? My work doesn’t really serve a purpose anyway’. Doubt over the purpose, meaning and value of your work is another sign of burnout.
Preoccupation with work: Have your friends and family commented that they hardly see you anymore? Are you finding less time for your hobbies, interests and social life? Or perhaps even whilst you are out, your mind is still back at work? These could be the signs that work is taking over.
Making mistakes: As clinicians we are human – all of us make mistakes. However, as burnout progresses, we become prone to lapses in judgement and cognition. Making more errors than usual signals a need to take a step back and re-evaluate.
If you are feeling burnt out, click through to the next sections in the wellbeing circle for resources and support.
The main difference between burn out and depression is that burn out relates to a specific situation or environment (such as work), whereas depression affects all aspects of your life. If you have stopped enjoying things outside of work or if you are feeling down all the time, you might be suffering from depression.
Symptoms of depression include:
- fatigue and poor sleep patterns
- changes in appetite with weight loss or gain
- reduced interest in social activities
- disengagement from work or study
- feeling overwhelmed, guilty, irritable, frustrated, lacking in confidence, indecisive, and miserable
- repetitive thoughts such as ‘I am a failure’, ‘It’s my fault’ or ‘I am worthless’
- thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
GPs know the symptoms of depression as we ask our patients about them every day, but sometimes it is not as easy to see them in ourselves.
Take a moment and fill out the K10 to self-assess for depression and anxiety.
If your score is high, or if you are feeling overwhelmed, please call your GP for an appointment. There are further resources and supports that may help in the following pages.
 Shanafelt T, Enhancing meaning in work: a prescription for preventing physician burnout and promoting patient-centered care JAMA. 2009;302(12): 1338-1340
Return to wellbeing circle
If you are considering self-harm or suicide, you must seek help immediately. Please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue (phone or web chat support) and make an urgent appointment with your GP.
If you or someone you are with is in immediate danger, please call 000 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department.
Your life is precious and things can get better with the right support.