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Signs of burnout

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“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”Tait Shanafelt MD   JAMA. 2009;302(12): 1338-1340 

The statistics do not lie. Everyone is at risk of ‘burnout’ at some point in their personal and professional lives. But how do we recognise the signs, before it causes harm to us, or others?

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:

  1. Exhaustion: When “tired” is the only answer to “How are you?”, alarm bells should be firing. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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