5 reasons physicians should take ‘stop days,’ and how to maximize them

By Melissa Sammy, MDLinx
Published April 5, 2019

Key Takeaways

The occupational stress attached to the practice of medicine is widespread—and it’s only getting worse. Consider that by 2025, the physician shortage is estimated to reach as high as 90,000, with burnout cited as one of the largest driving factors, according the US Department of Health and Human Services. Fueled by long hours, heavy workloads, and even post-traumatic stress, burnout can lead to a range of serious health problems that can exacerbate stress in a vicious cycle, and even impact patient care.

In a recent survey conducted by MDLinx, nearly 75% of physician respondents reported having at least one chronic health condition, and the majority of these respondents (74%) reported that stress, workload, or a combination of the two directly contributed to the development or worsening of these chronic conditions. Among these conditions, reported rates of clinical depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue were approximately two-fold higher than the national averages. Couple this with the fact that the rate of physician suicides is double that of the general population, and it’s not hard to see why physicians may be overdue for a much-needed break.

But how do you know when enough is really enough? Let’s take a closer look at some of the red flags that might signal the need for a “stop day” and how you can make the most of this time.

What is a ‘stop day’? And why take one?

Put simply, a “stop day” is a day in which you cease from all labors to focus on your well-being.

Stress manifests in a variety of ways, taking a toll on our daily lives. In fact, the majority of the US population suffers from moderate to high levels of stress, according to the American Psychological Association. With this ever-present burden, it can be difficult to recognize some of the more serious symptoms of burnout. Here are some signs to watch out for, and reasons you should take a stop day:

  1. Poor physical health
  • Frequent tension headache and migraine attacks are a hallmark of stress response. In numerous studies, migraine has been associated with decreased productivity in the workplace.
  • Prolonged sleep difficulties, which can contribute to fatigue, have long been associated with burnout. Researchers have shown that insomnia is linked to significantly higher workplace errors and associated costs. In the healthcare field, burnout-related sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue have been shown to triple the incidence of medical errors.
  • Stress can wreak havoc on our bodies, most notably the gut. In the short term, stress can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and indigestion. In the long term, prolonged stress can result in more serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, peptic ulcer disease, and leaky gut syndrome.
  • Poor mental health can often lead to physical aches and pains. Stress-related pains in the neck and back, for example, are often attributed to anxiety. Left unchecked, prolonged tension can lead to severe spine injury, pain, and neurological issues.
  • One of the most common reactions to stress is high blood pressure. Known as the “silent killer,” the signs and symptoms of hypertension can be inconspicuous, resulting in underdiagnosis. Left untreated, chronic elevated blood pressure levels can result in cardiopulmonary and renal damage, as well as sexual dysfunction and cognitive impairment. Fatal complications include aneurysm, heart failure, and stroke. Signs to watch out for include facial flushing, dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, and a pounding sensation in the neck, chest, and ears.
  1. Adverse changes in mood and behavior

Mental stress often develops in response to high job strain and can cause negative changes in mood and behavior, such as feelings or outbursts of irrational anger, irritability, tearfulness, depression, anxiety, and/or frustration. Unmanaged, this can have damaging effects on both personal and professional relationships.

  1. Persistent negative thoughts

Feelings of pessimism, disillusionment, and discontent often occur as a result of burnout. And these thoughts can snowball into poor workplace relations, isolation, and suicidal ideation.

  1. Curbing neglect

In the monotony of the daily grind, we tend to put life itself on the back burner. How often are we so wrapped up in work that we miss out on important family events or socializing with friends? Constant deprivation of life’s little luxuries and privileges can point to some much-needed R & R.

  1. Appointments for well-being

Given the root causes of burnout, many physicians cite lack of time as the primary obstacle in seeking care for the treatment or management of their own health problems. However, it is important to be proactive and heed the same advice that you give your patients. Failing to see the appropriate specialists may only lead to poorer outcomes and, possibly, premature death.

Ways to maximize your stop day

  • Community. Visit a close friend or a family member who you haven’t seen in a while, or spend some one-on-one time with your spouse or child.
  • R & R. A little rest and relaxation never hurt anyone. With such long work hours, you may want to put sleeping in at the top of your list. Spend the day binge-watching your favorite TV show, playing your favorite sport, indulging in the arts, or taking in the great outdoors by hiking or fishing.
  • Fun and adventure. Take a day trip for a fresh change of scenery. A day at the beach or in the city, rock-climbing, or go-kart racing are all fun options.
  • Seek counsel. Take time to consult with your spiritual leader, physician, and/or a mental health professional to address any health or personal concerns that may be keeping you up at night.
  • Play catch-up. Although it probably won’t be the most fun way to spend a day off, it might be the most satisfying. Take care of that dreaded “to-do” list and eliminate some of those outstanding chores.

We all know that clinicians have busy schedules, with most working on holidays and putting in far more hours than the standard 40-hour workweek. And while this dedication to patient care is admirable, it’s important to focus on self-care, as well. When the stressors begin to pile up, take note of the old proverb “physician, heal thyself,” and indulge in a stop day or two.

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