Commentary: Physician burnout: It’s good to complain


Burnout among vascular surgeons and other physicians is a serious national epidemic that needs immediate attention by senior policy makers and health care leaders. Not only is maintaining an appropriate supply of fully qualified surgeons important to the medical demands of our country, the underlying causes of physician burnout clearly point to increased personal pain and suffering within the physician community.

Dr. Donald Zimmerman

While it is quite clear that a serious response to physician burnout requires immediate action, the most pressing and urgent question for senior leadership is exactly what can be done to best address the causes of this epidemic.

This commentary reflects an approach and strategy for building an effective response to physician burnout deeply rooted in the broad discipline of health care management theory and research. Our understanding of the problem starts with the simple and common observation that our thoughts about our job are deeply embedded in the conditions and “lived reality” of doing our job. We can see this link in everyday conversations when they quickly turn to detailed complaints about all things work related.

Listening to people complain about their jobs can sometimes sound like unfounded “whining.” But if we dig deeper into such complaints, we can start to see some common elements giving credence to such grievances. For example, if we step back a little from our current preoccupations and look at the history of work over the last 100 years or so, we can see the outline of a long and generally progressive arc of change aimed at improving the conditions for making a living.

This arc of change has allowed us to stop complaining so much about the risk of losing life and limb from industrial accidents because those complaints helped to create new laws that imposed strict regulations, making the conditions of working with big machines much safer. From the 40-hour week, paid vacations, and tenure to workplace discrimination, harassment, and abuse, there are many examples of how complaining about the conditions of one’s job has led to major changes in how people work together in an organization.

Coming back to the present, the big, clamoring machines that caused many to complain years ago have now been replaced by the clicking and hum of computers used by knowledge-based workers. But while the tools, physical environment, workforce, and other key characteristics of what people do for a living change over time, serious complaints about job conditions remain important sources of information about how to make those conditions job safer and healthier.

The importance of complaining

One of the primary goals of every health care organization should be to consciously create safe and healthy working conditions for physicians and everyone else involved in the daily production of health care services.

At present, there is considerable interest in developing new programs for addressing physician burnout by using therapeutic interventions. This approach is focused on mediating the severity of an unhealthy workplace by helping physicians better cope with personal frustrations and other psychological difficulties related to their job.

Personal counseling, yoga at noon, and other tools for building personal resilience can certainly improve coping skills but fundamentally miss the point for addressing the underlying causes for burnout.

The problem here is that a reliance on therapeutic interventions alone can mask and reflect the cause of the problem from their source in the conditions of the workplace back onto the physicians who must do their job under those conditions. This is roughly equivalent to providing therapeutic counseling to a factory worker who loses an arm to a machine in an industrial accident with no mention or effort to fix the dangerous machine that workers were loudly complaining about before the accident.

In order to develop an effective response to burnout, attention needs to be given to the specific content of what physicians are complaining about as existential threats to their personal health and safety in the environment in which they do their work as physicians.

A clear-eyed assessment of the real-life structures and processes that define how the work of physicians is routinely carried out every day is needed in every modern health care organization. Such an assessment is not a call for simply “whining” about everyday annoyances and bothers that are encountered as part of most people’s jobs. Rather, a thoughtful cataloging of what physicians are complaining about is required.

This examination needs to carefully listen to complaints to better understand two highly related factors. First: What do vascular surgeons and other physicians “want to do” in order to be personally “satisfied” with their job? And second: How does the organization (structure) and established “flow” (processes) of their given work environment encourage, help, hinder, or prevent them from being satisfied as a regular part of being a physician?

Such an assessment of complains will not be easy. Important methodological considerations will need to be made to make conceptual and measurable distinctions between complaints about major threats to physician health that are part of the current work environment and ongoing and rapid changes affecting the overall profession of medicine. For example, new and ongoing developments in medical technology, health informatics, generational shifts in the attributes of the workforce, evolution of state and federal policy, shifting patient and epidemiological profiles, and other major trends will continue to affect the workplace of physicians. Such changes are part of the current dynamics of the workplace of physicians and may be major components of the conditions of work that are generating complaints and contributing to burnout.

Viewing physician complaints as important tools for improving the working conditions of physician does not mean that such changes can be stopped. More directly, it means that physician complaints can become a critical part in the policy debate and management discussion about what changes in the physician workplace need to change to eliminate burnout.

From a health care management perspective, physicians should take the lead and keep complaining. It is an essential window for senior leadership to see exactly what needs to be done to create a safer and healthier workplace for physicians to be physicians.

Dr. Zimmerman is a professor of health care management at the University of New Orleans.


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