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February 7, 2017

5 indicators of burnout—and Melinda Gates' advice for avoiding it

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 27, 2019.

Decades ago, the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger defined burnout as a "response to a demand that [people] may make upon themselves in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive."

Infographic: Here are 4 key strategies to mitigate physician burnout

Freudenberger himself experienced burnout during his lifetime, and in recognizing it, coined the term for a condition that has increasingly weighed upon an overworked and under-stimulated population.

Writing for Forbes, Liz Ryan shares five telling signs that you're experiencing burnout, and in an interview with Fast Company, Melinda Gates shares valuable advice for preventing it.

If you're experiencing any of the following, you're likely burned out:

  1. Your work has become more difficult and taxing than it used to be;
  2. You're no longer excited by your job—instead, it feels like a punishment;
  3. You're worrying about your job so much you cannot sleep, or are physically sick;
  4. You dread getting out of bed in the morning to get to work; and
  5. You no longer have energy for the activities you used to find fun.

Ryan argues that "the best way to hit any goal is to be excited about the goal," which means that your burnout might very well cause you to perform poorly at work and to miss your goals altogether.

"You may need a new job," says Ryan, since "If you strive to hit targets merely because you'll get fired if you don't reach them, that's not very inspiring."

If you haven't hit your burnout point yet, but find yourself juggling so many responsibilities that it could be around the corner, you might consider Melinda Gates' advice for turning the situation around.

"Six or seven years ago, I felt like I loved [my philanthropist job], but I was going trip to trip and meeting to meeting and then I would rush home and be with my kids, and I'd rush back and get on email at night and then back to the office," Gates recalls. "I finally just thought, 'I don't want to live this way. And I'm not sure I'm doing my best work.'"

It was at that point that Gates decided to stop taking the time to completely clear out her inbox each night. Instead, she began to build in 15-minute breaks throughout her work day to take some quiet time to herself.

Gates makes time to pause and reflect, and to "fill her own joy bucket" first before tackling her work challenges.

Now, Gates only returns to her emails on select evenings, and reminds herself that not every email needs an immediate reply—some, she says, don't require replies at all (Ryan, Forbes, 11/21/16; Schwartz, Fast Company, 11/27/16; King, NPR, 12/8/16).

Learn more: The 4 ways you can fight clinician burnout

Physician burnout links to a 16% decrease in patient satisfaction, an 11% increase in reported medical errors, increased turnover, and early retirement. Act now to prevent further damage to your business, physicians, and patients.

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