4 Ways Doctors Can Heal From a Year of Burnout

Tips for physicians, front-line workers, and the rest of us.

physician burnout

Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell

Since 1933, March 30 has been recognized as National Doctors’ Day, a day to acknowledge the incredible work of physicians and the contributions they make to their communities. This year, the team at Verywell celebrates the endurance of medical professionals who’ve been faced with unprecedented demands.

We know burnout exists among physicians and front-line workers, but the reality is that they’re often faced with the expectation that they can deal with the trauma of COVID-19 on their own.

We reached out to some of the physicians on our Medical Review Board to learn about their year—their triumphs, their challenges, their wellness tips. Here’s what they shared:

Coaching and Mindfulness Practices Were Key

For Anju Goel, MD, MPH, who has over 10 years of experience in the California public health system, the meditation practice she started prior to the pandemic became more useful than ever. She aims for 30 minutes a day, but says even 5 or 10 minutes helps. “Sometimes it’s all the time you can take for yourself,” she says.

Goel also started working with a career coach who is also a physician to address the challenges of working long hours in stressful situations. “Coaching has been transformational! It has allowed me to reframe both specific work situations and bigger picture career issues with the perspective of a supportive outside observer,” she says. “My coach has helped me to see things more objectively, clarify my values and goals, and act in ways that bring me closer to those goals. As a result, work is less stressful and more satisfying.”

Staying Positive and Celebrating Scientific Breakthroughs

Michael Menna, DO, an attending emergency medicine physician in New York, worried from the start that he’d contract the disease or bring it home to his family. “The scariest thing being on the front line was the unknown,” he says.

But he says that watching the vaccine development, testing, and resulting efficacy was “a huge moment in medicine” and seeing the subsequent downtrending cases of COVID-19 has been even more promising. 

“It was tough to stay positive during this troubling year. At one point it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the medical field along with the general public rallied and developed a deep camaraderie that helped advance us to where we are today,” Menna shares.

How to Deal with Burnout

Physicians are dealing with grief, trauma, and PTSD, but often aren’t given the tools to heal or acknowledge that they’re struggling. Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind, shared ways to help this process— which are equally useful for non-physicians, too.

Practice self-compassion. Research shows toxic self-blame is at the root of burnout for many physicians (especially women). Beware of the tendency to think everything is your fault. When you catch yourself being overly critical or blaming yourself too much, ask what you'd say to a friend. Then, give yourself those same kind, compassionate words. 

Seek online therapy. Some physicians are afraid to seek help in their communities due to fears that a mental health diagnosis could impact their careers. Most online therapy programs allow patients to use nicknames so you can remain anonymous while seeking treatment. Also, most online therapists don't offer an official diagnosis, which might appeal to anyone who doesn’t want to be labeled with a disorder.

Use online screening tools. Mental Health America offers online screening tools that give anonymous feedback about the likelihood of a mental health diagnosis. This can help you get some objective data about whether you may be experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue.  

Take time off. Studies show about a third of physicians only take two weeks off per year, at most. Time away from work is vital to good mental health. Use your vacation time to de-stress and take care of yourself. 

As a physician, take time to make your mental wellness a priority. Take these small steps to prioritize yourself on National Doctors’ Day:

  • Schedule brief relaxation and stress management breaks
  • Plan regular therapist consultations
  • Make time-outs for mental refreshments with deep breathing or meditation
  • Maintain helpful positive self-talk 
  • Create habits to avoid overgeneralizing fears
  • Accept that situations cannot change
  • Nurture environments that enhance moods of patience, tolerance, and hope

And if you’re not a doctor—try these tips out, too. We have all been impacted by this year of the pandemic.

A Word From Verywell

As physicians and front-line workers, we must acknowledge that taking care of our mental wellness directly affects our ability to be present and also fully serve our patients. Physician burnout can easily create toxic environments in all spectrums of our lives. We hope this moment of mental pause can help reassure you of the quality time and attention that you deserve today on National Doctors’ Day and every day.

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  1. U.S. Census Bureau. National Doctors Day: March 30, 2021. Updated March 24, 2021.