How a Culture of Isolation Breeds Physician Burnout

Adult male sits in a darkened room looking exasperated or tired, stressed
By: Jason Horay
2 Minute Read

Physician burnout is bred in isolation and silence. Doctors across all medical disciplines face an inordinate amount of stress due to long hours in high-stakes environments where patients demand undivided attention. Many physicians lack a sufficient support network to cope with these stressors, leaving them in a vulnerable state of isolation. This isolation ultimately can lead to growing feelings of overwhelm, emotional exhaustion, lack of fulfillment, and cynicism—a state of being otherwise known as “physician burnout.”

When physicians begin to experience the symptoms of burnout, they can quickly have a negative impact on their practices and on their patients’ health. Quality of care may decrease due to the physician’s inability to fully engage with patients, ultimately reducing overall patient satisfaction and increasing the risk of malpractice litigation. By understanding the root causes of burnout and creating an escape from the associated feelings of isolation, physicians can enhance their mental well-being while supporting quality patient care and the success of their practice.

Key Factors of Isolation

In my experience working with doctors and practice administrators, I’ve learned that revealing vulnerabilities and personal challenges with colleagues can be a challenge for physicians. This behavior has been reinforced as a professional norm during medical training, which often follows a “trial by fire” approach that encourages competitiveness among colleagues. While a little competition can certainly help physicians strive to be their best, many doctors set unrealistic standards for themselves, and they often fall prey to harsh self-criticism and doubt.

In addition, physicians are regularly exposed to death, human suffering, and the limitations of therapies and treatments available to help ailing patients. This emotional burden can add to feelings of isolation and powerlessness that compound with each negative experience.

Overcoming Isolation

Several studies have demonstrated an overall enhanced sense of well-being when doctors regularly come together to share professional experiences, feelings, reactions, and perceptions. The importance of peer relationships should not be overlooked, and physicians who make an effort to regularly interact with colleagues can more successfully avoid or overcome feelings of isolation and burnout. Below are a few ways that doctors can find or create a positive support network:

  • Invite colleagues to informal engagements, such as an afternoon cup of coffee or a short walking break.
  • Coordinate social activities outside of work hours. Some examples include happy hours, bowling games, or casual dinners.
  • Explore structured peer experiences within the community, such as the Schwartz Rounds or Balint Groups.
  • Join an online physician support group on Facebook or SERMO.

The ultimate goal is for the physician to build a connection with someone he or she can trust.

Physicians face unique challenges, and colleagues who experience similar situations may be able to relate in ways that friends and family cannot. Curi members who would like to learn more about this topic are encouraged to seek out opportunities within their own networks, medical societies, and communities.

Jason Horay
Jason Horay is Curi’s Manager of Health Strategy and Well-Being, based in Raleigh, NC.
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