February 23, 2021

Physician Burnout: Should I Take a Sabbatical?

Everybody’s job gets stressful sometimes, no matter how engaged or passionate you are — and physicians are undoubtedly familiar with on-the-job stress. Chronic workplace stress can result in burnout, which profoundly affects your quality of life and your work.

[RELATED: Learn everything you need to know about physician burnout here.]

A brief sabbatical can dramatically improve your physical and mental state. If you’re worried about burnout, read on to learn more about what it is, how it affects your work and health, and tips on asking for a sabbatical so you can recharge.

Taking Care of Yourself

If you work as a physician, you probably don’t need to be told that it can be an incredibly stressful job. It’s true that high pay and the satisfaction of helping others will offset some of the stress for some people.

But, over time, working long hours and living with the anxiety of having other people’s well-being in your hands will affect even the most stoic physician. Other factors professionals cite in the epidemic of physician burnout include chaotic work environments, an uptick in bureaucratic busywork, an argumentative atmosphere, and declining pay combined with increased workloads.

The World Health Organization recently labeled professional burnout as a syndrome, with symptoms including energy depletion or exhaustion, emotional distance from or cynicism about one’s job, and reduced efficacy in the workplace. A 2016 Mayo Clinic survey estimated that just over half of all physicians experienced at least one symptom of burnout in 2014 — an increase of nearly ten percent compared with just three years ago.

While many physicians stay on the job to improve patients’ lives, physician stress has serious effects on patients. Studies link burnout with decreased patient satisfaction and poorer health outcomes. Distraction and disengagement can worsen physicians’ bedside manner and cause an increased rate of errors — which can be serious in some cases. All of this can create a self-perpetuating cycle: when a physician knows their job performance is suffering, they’re more likely to become stressed on the job.

And, of course, burnout greatly affects the physician. Chronic stress negatively affects physical and mental health, and experts link it with increased risks of chronic illness. Reports say many physicians leave their work mid-career due to job stress.

Most tragically of all, an estimated 400 physicians take their lives in the US every year. While it’s impossible to create a direct correlation between this and job stress, physician suicide rates are sky-high compared with the rest of the population, and that’s almost certainly not a coincidence.

In a recent interview, Mayo Clinic physician and co-creator of the Well-Being Index Dr. Lotte Dyrbye explained, “We’re taking care of everybody else and sometimes we forget about the importance of taking care of ourselves.”

Why a Sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a vacation from your job. It typically lasts at least a few weeks, and as long as a few months (or, a year in this case). It may be paid or unpaid, depending on the terms of your employment.

You can spend your sabbatical however you please, including traveling, or focusing on your hobbies or your family. The idea is that if you spend time completely away from work (rather than just cutting back on your hours), you’ll come back relaxed and refreshed, and ready to rededicate yourself to your career.

To some physicians, a sabbatical may seem like a very long time to step back from their work. But so long as the physician has set up everything well in advance, there’s no need to worry. It’s worthwhile to try going on sabbatical at least for a while if you’re feeling stressed.

Sabbatical Logistics

If you’re considering going on a six-week sabbatical, here are some things to think about:

Paid, or unpaid? Paid sabbaticals are always best, of course, but not all workplaces will offer one. If you’re considering an unpaid sabbatical, make sure you can go without a few paychecks before leaving.

Making arrangements. If you have any pressing projects, clear them up before you leave. Make sure someone in the office will be handling all your communications, and have a medical practitioner who will take your patients in your absence.

Giving notice. You can’t just disappear. You need to make sure your bosses, coworkers, and patients all know you’re going on sabbatical and how long it’ll last. Make sure everyone is aware of the arrangements you’ve made in your absence, so there’s no confusion.

Take, for example, this process map for a physician sabbatical:

Image source: urgentcarecareer.com

How to Ask for a Sabbatical

Asking for a sabbatical can be nerve-wracking — but with a little care, it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s good to start feeling your bosses and coworkers out in casual conversations, to get a better understanding of what things would look like if you left, and to give a little warning. This initial period is also a good time to do your homework on your workplace’s sabbatical policy, if it has one.

Presumably by the point you’re burned out, you’ve gone the extra mile to help out around your office, and people understand how valuable you are to your facility. As you close in on making your request, start asking around to get your colleagues to cover you.

Finally, it’s time to sit down with your employer and make the case. Explain that you’ve been feeling burned out, and want to take your sabbatical before the quality of your work is damaged. Explain that you have the coverage lined up. If you’re going to be using your sabbatical to work on continuing education or other coursework that makes you more valuable, let them know, to sweeten the deal.

Make Yourself a Priority

Many physicians suffer from stress that profoundly affects their quality of life. But a sabbatical can help you unwind and give your full attention to your work afterwards. You may feel a sense of guilt if you take a sabbatical, but keep in mind that you need to be your best self to give your patients the best care.

By planning your sabbatical request ahead of time, you can ensure a positive outcome for yourself, your patients, and your workplace.

Well-Being Index Team

The Well-Being Index team is made up of thought leaders, healthcare associates, technology experts, and content creators dedicated to improving well-being by equipping organizations with the tools and data needed to Go Beyond Burnout.