Is “Burnout Hysteria” Perpetuating the Problem with Physicians?

Physician burnout is a huge topic right now. In both peer-reviewed literature and popular media, the subject has stormed our national consciousness, creating the perception that a burnout epidemic is threatening the very foundations of our healthcare system. But is that perception accurate? And is the uproar warranted? Yes and no, say Gary R. Simonds, MD, MHCDS, and Wayne M. Sotile, PhD.

“Yes, physician burnout is a real thing, it impacts many physicians, and it needs to be taken seriously when it occurs—but, for most people, burnout is not a diagnosis of a chronic condition,” says Dr. Sotile, coauthor along with Dr. Simonds of The Thriving Physician: How to Avoid Burnout by Choosing Resilience Throughout Your Medical Career. “To deny that the problem exists is to trivialize it. However, to err on the side of hyperbole is equally harmful.”

Drs. Sotile and Simonds say physician burnout likely isn’t as widespread as the hype indicates. What’s more, all the well-meaning talk around the subject is creating a “burnout hysteria” that leads to its own set of problems. In fact, it perpetuates work ambivalence in physicians and causes the very disengagement and negative attitudes that lead to (you guessed it) burnout. “We may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Dr. Simonds. “We need to stop talking so much about burnout and start focusing on its very effective antidote: resilience.”

Their book teaches physicians (and those who employ and lead them) how to do just that. It’s filled with evidence-based strategies and tactics to help individuals develop and harness their own personal resistance. We spoke with Drs. Simonds and Sotile about physician burnout and how to avoid this common problem.


How does talking about physician burnout actually make things worse?

What we focus on tends to magnify. Our current explosion of information re: burnout is the good/bad news. The good news: we’ve ended our historic, collective denial about the suffering that medical students, residents, and practicing physicians endure. The challenge is that many are now over-scanning for signs of distress, and developing ambivalence about joyfully immersing themselves in their work—which is a factor in promoting resilience. Good work is good for one’s health and well-being.

What strategies can healthcare professionals use to avoid burnout?

In a nutshell, learn to counter daily hassles with daily uplifts; and work to develop and preserve relationship harmony, at work and in your personal life.

Can you explain how re-framing your mental map works?

Our mental map is our cumulative of ideas, cognitive habits and beliefs. These tend to create ‘lenses” through which we view the world, and tend to yield selective perceptions that confirm our biases. Re-framing is part of a growth mindset – a powerful correlate with resilience. Example: I am currently working with an OBGYN who is beset with sadness, shame, and stress because she has been named in a medical malpractice suit. Reframe: “This will prove to be a brief, painful chapter in what will likely be a very, very long, good book that is your career.”


Medical school debt and low starting salaries are big stressors among physicians. Are there any tips you can offer doctors for managing their finances so that they don’t sink deeper into debt?

Key here is avoiding the “sacrifice-indulge” mentality that results in either trying to counter work wear-down or counter marriage/family/relationship sacrifices that come with a life in medicine by “buying” what will be only temporary soothing (i.e., “As hard as I work…and as many sacrifices as my life mate and/or family make because of my career…we deserve this _____new car; big house; fancy vacation.) “Throwing money at your distress” will simply compound your financial distress.