Preventing and managing burnout as a resident

By Kirstin Bass, MD, PhD | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published April 18, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Approximately half of residents report feeling “burned out” at some point during their career.

  • Although it will take structural and institutional changes to overcome this problem, there are steps individuals can take to preserve well-being, such as prioritizing your physical, mental and emotional health.

  • Talking to colleagues and mentors regularly about how you’re doing, both at work and at home, is also important, so that signs of burnout can hopefully be recognized and addressed as early as possible.

Residency is a time of long workdays conducted at a demanding pace with high levels of emotional intensity. It's no wonder this environment can put clinicians in training at risk for burnout.

Burnout refers to a long-term stress reaction characterized by three dimensions:

  • Emotional exhaustion

  • Cynicism and depersonalization, and

  • Reduced professional efficacy and sense of personal accomplishment.[]

Steps to prevent burnout

Burnout has been on the rise in clinicians in recent years, and it affects not only clinicians themselves but also their colleagues and patients.

Physician burnout ultimately needs to be addressed at the institutional level, and many organizations and institutions have taken steps to look into and help overcome this problem.

One notable accomplishment was the setting of new work-hour standards in 2011. The American Medical Association has also created a toolkit to help create a holistic, supportive culture of well-being to prevent resident and fellow burnout. Many institutions have their own programs to help address this issue.

Maintain your wellness

While the problem of resident burnout needs to be addressed on many levels, there are some key steps you can take to help maintain your personal wellness during residency.[][]

Nutrition: One key aspect to personal wellness is maintaining a healthy diet. Despite the hectic and often irregular schedule of residency, it is important to eat healthy, nutritious foods regularly. Experiment with the best way to do this for yourself—sometimes it may be remembering to pack something filling and healthy to bring with you, or scouting out the hospital cafeteria for quick and nutritious options to grab on the go.

Fitness: Physical activity is another key aspect to maintaining personal wellness. It can be tough to figure out how to fit in a workout during a resident’s busy schedule, but regular physical activity is crucial to maintaining your personal health. This might mean getting up for an early morning run before rounds, but it also might mean doing push-ups in the on-call room after each note you finish!

Emotional health: Residency can be an emotional roller coaster. There is emotional strain inherent in spending long hours serving sick patients while working with a team full of different personalities in a high-stakes, high-pressure environment. And there is often emotional strain at home, as well, due to the struggle to maintain relationships with family and friends during a time when your schedule is hectic and often irregular.

Wellness tactics you can use to help maintain your emotional well-being include practicing mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques, or participating in resident or physician support groups, when available. Maintaining nurturing relationships with friends and family is important, and it is also helpful to identify any personal and professional conflicts that are affecting your emotional health.

Mindset and behavior adaptability: Residency is an intense environment that is all too often full of chaos. Understanding how to thrive in this environment is essential to your personal wellness. Learning ways to adapt your daily routines and expectations to factors outside of your control is a valuable skill to develop. This will be unique to each residency and person.

Talking with other residents can give you ideas of how others in your situation have coped.

Financial health: Residents tend to have limited income on top of debt from medical school. However, it is important to make sure you have some financial security for your day-to-day activities in order to maintain your peace of mind and ensure your future wellness. Many residency programs bring in financial counselors to help address these issues, and you should consider taking advantage of this. You may also have friends or family members who specialize in finance, or you may be able to reach out to a professional on your own.

Preventive care: Although you recommend preventive care strategies to your patients all the time, it is just as important to remember these practices for yourself. Try to make and keep appointments for regular preventive care and screenings. This includes remembering to refill prescriptions and going to the dentist.

Talking it out helps

As you find ways to incorporate wellness habits into your life as a resident, talking to colleagues and mentors can be helpful. Regular check-ins with people you trust can help keep you on track, or let you know it is time to make some changes.

Burnout is prevalent among residents and among practicing clinicians, too—just about half of residents and clinicians report feeling burned out at some point during their career. If you are feeling this way, you are not alone.

What this means for you

You can get through this time by prioritizing your health. Good nutrition and exercise are key ways to combat burnout. Focus on your emotional health. Reduce stress, which can even include addressing financial worries. Talking to others such as mentors and colleagues will help you through, as they may recognize the danger signs for burnout.

Related: How can medical residents strike the best work-life balance?
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