Browse all articles
By The Next Step

How to avoid burnout

3 min
Female medical professional standing with arms crossed

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health and wellbeing of millions of people - including many of the keyworkers who have worked tirelessly to support others. A recent study by The BMJ has highlighted concerns around mental wellbeing, and in particular, the risks of burnout for trainee doctors.

The GMC warned:

"Of the 46,793 trainees in the UK who completed the annual national survey (a 76% response rate), 33% said that they felt burnt out from work to a high or very high degree, and 43% found their work emotionally exhausting to a high or very high degree."

So, what is burnout?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), occupational burnout is ‘a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress, with symptoms characterized by ‘feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.’

What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: you can only "burn out" if you have been "alight" in the first place.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Specific symptoms of burnout include:

  • Having a negative and critical attitude at work
  • Dreading going into work, and wanting to leave once you're there
  • Having low energy, and little interest at work
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Being absent from work a lot
  • Having feelings of emptiness
  • Experiencing physical complaints such as headaches, illness, or backache
  • Being irritated easily by team members or clients
  • Having thoughts that your work doesn't have meaning or make a difference
  • Pulling away emotionally from your colleagues or clients
  • Feeling that your work and contribution goes unrecognised
  • Blaming others for your mistakes
  • You're thinking of quitting work or changing roles

How do we avoid it?

Preventing burnout, is key. lists the following four key burnout busters to prevent burnout from rearing it’s ugly head.

  • Exercise

Not only is exercise good for our physical health, it can also give us an emotional boost.

Stretched for time? You don’t need to spend hours at the gym to reap these benefits. Mini-workouts and short walks are convenient ways to make exercise a daily habit.

  • Eat a balanced diet

Eating a healthy diet filled with omega-3 fatty acids can be a natural antidepressant. Adding foods rich in omega-3s like flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fish may help give your mood a boost.

  • Practice good sleep habits

Our bodies need time to rest and reset, which is why healthy sleep habits are essential for our wellbeing. According to the National Sleep Foundation, avoiding caffeine before bedtime, establishing a relaxing bedtime ritual, and banning smartphones from the bedroom can help promote sound sleep hygiene.

  • Ask for help

During stressful times, it’s important to reach out for help. If asking for assistance feels difficult, consider developing a self-care “check-in” with close friends and family members so that you can take care of each other during trying times.

Research from the Reddit junior doctors forum suggest the following that will also help prevent burnout:

1. Don’t let anyone guilt trip you into extra activity. Having boundaries and being at ease with saying “no” is a perfectly understandable response to such requests. Try and help with swaps if you are a doctor, but don’t put yourself in a situation where you work multiple nights and weekends.

2. Take care of yourself. If you are sick, stay at home.

3. Remember there is always time for a break and annual leave.

Doctors in Distress is a charity dedicated to the prevention of worsening mental health issues in the medical profession. If you are struggling and need some support, then take a look at the treatment services available for you.