Cindy Krischer Goodman

Work/Life Balancing Act: Doctors at particular risk of burnout

As a physician shortage looms, Heidi Chumley faces the tall task of graduating future doctors at a pivotal time in medicine. Chumley is dean of American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, a former primary care physician — and a mother of five.

Chumley is well aware of her job challenge: “Burnout is a critical problem in medicine,” she says, in her Coral Gables office.

In 2015, more people applied for and enrolled in medical schools than in the previous five years, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Educators call the trend “good news” in the face of a national doctor shortage. But at the same time, the rate of physician burnout shot up in almost every specialty, according to a new national survey of almost 7,000 physicians conducted by the Mayo Clinic.

While people in all professions fight emotional exhaustion, physicians reported burnout at almost double the rate of the general population, the survey found. In addition, researchers found burnout particularly pervasive among doctors on the front line — those in primary care, family care and emergency care — who struggle with the ability to recover or recharge in their time off. “That’s not good for them, their families, the medical profession or patients,” says Tait Shanafelt, M.D. and Mayo researcher.

Chumley, who practiced family medicine before becoming an academic leader, experienced firsthand the stress that leads to burnout: “Being a physician is emotionally and physically tiring.” Females, who now make up half of all medical students, particularly are at risk, she says: “Women may tend to neglect themselves as they give to their patients, their partners, and their families.”

Chumley, whose children range in age from 8 to 23, has found it helpful to have mentors who are satisfied with their career choice and offer support.

To prepare future doctors, she introduced a course in understanding the field’s demands. She also advises students: “Choose a program or practice where the majority of people seem happy — if the majority are happy, it is likely not by chance, but through purposeful attention to creating a supportive environment.”

As patients, most of us have noticed that the healthcare system is going through unprecedented changes. As many as 75 percent of all doctors now work for large healthcare organizations, which brings pressure to perform at a faster pace and requires a new level of electronic documentation. Shanafelt says the interruptions and brevity of face-to-face interactions have led some physicians to feel a loss of meaning in their work.

Along with high burnout, most physicians also reported feeling dissatisfied with their work/life balance. Over 40 percent of doctors in the Mayo survey said they work more than 60 hours a week. Researchers found it is more the unpredictability of their schedules that causes doctors to feel dissatisfied with work/life balance.

Shanafelt says healthcare organizations need a system-wide approach to providing doctors more control over schedules, more creative scheduling and more flexibility around work life needs. They also need to better train supervisors. Those who lacked management training and people skills had more burnout on their staffs. “If we want people to choose careers in medicine, we need to recognize the challenges and do a better job of keeping physicians satisfied,” he says.

At least one South Florida healthcare organization has recognized the problem of physician burnout and has committed to developing strategies to combat it. Nina Beauchesne, a senior vice president of Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, said her organization has created a wellness committee to survey its doctors and come up with ways to prevent or alleviate burnout: “It is definitely on our radar.”

On the individual level, Beauchesne says the ability to contact anyone, anytime, anywhere has been hard on physicians and healthcare professionals: “We have to make sure they take vacations or get a break and self assess among their peers so when one person has issues, others step up.”

Along with advising that they seek out mentors, Chumley encourages future doctors to leverage teamwork to find balance and to reach for leadership roles where part of their job will be keeping others from burning out. It is possible to find satisfaction in a medical career and enjoy an outside life, she says.

Connect with Cindy Krischer Goodman at @balancegal, or visit

Work life tips for female physicians

Be self-aware: It’s easy to replay a difficult patient encounter when you are supposed to be focused on your child, she says. Be at work when you are at work and be at home when you are at home.

Seek out multiple mentors: Your network should including men and women, and building it must start in medical school and residency.

Learn graceful self-promotion: Introduce yourself with your credentials and position yourself strategically at the front in group settings.

Take a team approach to medicine: Many women have collaborative skills and can leverage them to succeed in the current healthcare environment that uses a team approach to medical care.

Master time management skills: In trying to appear like a team player, choose opportunities that will advance your career rather than those that receive less recognition and require the same time commitment.

Approach part-time schedules cautiously: In seeking balance, some physicians ask for reduced work schedules. These schedules often end up requiring full-time hours with a reduced salary.

Source: Heidi Chumley, M.D., executive dean and chief academic officer of the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, based in Coral Gables.