Three signs of burnout and how to tackle it

Sherin Zacharia, Rohan Devani and Rohan Shankarghatta explore the most common signs of burnout and what they learnt from doctors about dealing with stress.

Healthcare professionals are facing increasing workload pressures, with around nine in 10 saying the demands of their jobs have soared over the last few years.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed or burnt out with these hefty work demands, and many doctors are turning to coping mechanisms like mindfulness, breathing exercises and fresh air breaks to deal with these difficulties.

In response to the burnout and staffing crisis in the NHS, we created Doctors Do Mind (DDM) - a student organisation that aims to help current and future doctors identify, discuss and tackle the realities of burnout, as well as mental health and work-related stress.

In the past two years we've provided seminars, meditation sessions and workshops with senior NHS professionals to challenge burnout culture and remove stigma around this often-controversial topic.

Rather than hiding from the issue or accepting it as part of the job, we believe frank discussion and education is the way forward.

Here, we share a summary of what we've learnt from the experiences of three of our previous speakers. Understanding how they have overcome burnout can help us recognise and address the challenges we may face in our professional careers.

How to identify burnout

Feeling exhausted

Tiredness is the most straightforward and obvious sign of burnout. Doctors are routinely overworked, with an ever-increasing patient burden, coupled with fewer team members to safely staff the ward. If you're regularly being asked to stay past your shift make sure to write an exception report and highlight the issues to your seniors.

Anxiety before shifts

Look out for feelings of worry, despair and anxiety before shifts. There may be a variety of reasons for this, from workload concerns to a potentially toxic working environment. Discussing with your peers and other junior doctors about the issues present can help you to focus on the causes of stress in the workplace before aiming to tackle this.

Lacking motivation

Due to the nature of the training pathways, it can be overwhelming to continuously feel the need to be working on outside projects. This means working far more hours than many other professions. It's very important to take a break and make time for yourself. Seek advice from seniors if you feel you need a break or reduce your hours by going less than full time (LTFT) to allow for more time to focus on yourself.

Dangers to patient safety

The MDU's sleep survey last year identified burnout as a severe and preventable factor affecting judgement when making care decisions for patients. Doctors - struggling to answer to the demands of the job and facing extreme pressure - found their decision-making and concentration seriously impaired.

Crucially, these issues bleed into life outside the hospital or practice - tired doctors were found to be at greater risk of road-traffic accidents after a lengthy and tiring shift. The issue of burnout affects a doctor's ability to care for their patients and puts their own safety at greater risk. Professional stress impacts healthcare providers at every level, causing a significant impact on work and home life.

With pressures on frontline staff rising, there has never been a more important time to tackle burnout.

Here are a few lessons we've learnt from previous DDM speakers.

Speak up about burnout and seek support

This doctor gave us a talk on his heart-wrenching experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, the stresses he was under and how these ultimately led to burnout. He emphasised how seeking support with friends and family helped him find the necessary out-of-work distractions needed to overcome the challenges faced in a busy emergency department.

Don't be afraid to look for new stimuli

This guest shared her experience of taking on new roles and opportunities when her career felt repetitive and dull, exploring different avenues such as academics, teaching, activism and even policy. Changing the work environment or adding variety to your work is a fantastic way to avoid exhausting yourself.

Mindfulness and meditation are underrated

This doctor has been advocating the benefits of mindfulness and meditation around the country. He explained how meditation is an exciting new avenue offering control of the stress and anxiety that inevitably arises while working as a doctor. Meditation allows us to process emotions and rationalise stressful experiences. A curious tip he shared with us was using deep breathing exercises - helping him to reset mentally, allowing him to re-approach a stressful situation with fresh perspective and insight.

Where to go for support

  1. The MDU: check out the resources signposted on the MDU's health and wellbeing page, or call the advice line for free access to professional support and advice.
  2. The BMA: offers counselling and peer support services for all doctors and medical students regardless of membership status. Raising concerns is encouraged - an active step that can improve the working environment and your own health and wellbeing.
  3. Speak to a friend or colleague: frank, open conversations about work-related struggles can be therapeutic and gives you the chance to hear interesting perspectives or think about an issue in a way you may not have previously.
  4. NHS burnout solutions: many NHS trusts offer professional support programmes and staff for doctors to seek guidance on work-related stress. These campaigns can assist you in speaking to your line manager or improve workplace responsibility allocation if necessary. Universities often provide support services for their students too.
  5. Charities: the NHS also recommends that healthcare professionals reach out to charities who can listen and advise confidentially. Mental Health UK provides advice and access to local services, and the Samaritans offers a free, 24-hour phone line for support at any time.

This page was correct at publication on 12/04/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Sherin Zacharia

by Sherin Zacharia

Sherin is a final year medical student at King’s College London. He splits his time between hospital placements, teaching younger year groups, being involved in student societies and exploring London. He has great interest in psychiatry and has been involved in research studies exploring mental health. During his time at university, he also developed an interest in medical sociology, which culminated in him completing an intercalated BSc in Primary Care.

Sherin has been actively involved in helping Doctors Do Mind with the goal of aiding medical professionals combat burnout and stresses at work. In his free time, Sherin enjoys experimenting with new cuisines, traveling and playing sports.

Rohan Devani

by Rohan Devani

Rohan Devani is an incoming specialised foundation programme doctor, graduating from King’s College London in 2023. With an interest in communication, teaching and leadership, Rohan co-founded Doctors Do Mind – a KCL society – with the aim of helping healthcare students and professionals alike as the NHS faces unprecedented challenges. Rohan has a great interest in medical technology and has published research in digital health.

Rohan Shankarghatta

by Rohan Shankarghatta

Rohan Shankarghatta is one of the co-founders of Doctors Do Mind. Having studied at King's College London, he will be starting his academic foundation programme at Manchester Royal Infirmary in July 2023. 

Doctors Do Mind is a national organisation aiming to give doctors and other healthcare professionals a platform to discuss how stress and burnout may have affected them in the workplace. 

During medical school, Rohan co-founded Doctors Do Mind with his colleagues witnessing the impact the COVID-19 pandemic was having on healthcare workers globally. The mission is to increase the discussion around mental health for healthcare professionals and create a supportive community to push for workplace improvements.