Many health care providers are experiencing immense strain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This article on burnout, prepared prior to the coronavirus spread reaching a critical stage in the US, includes coping tips and strategies that also will be useful for those dealing with isolation, stress, depression, frustration, and other symptoms that are being reported in this COVID environment.
STS News, Spring 2020 — Tackling the growing problem of burnout among cardiothoracic surgeons will require efforts by both health care organizations and individuals to reduce stigma and develop resilience in the face of a challenging workplace environment, according to experts at the recent STS Annual Meeting in New Orleans.
“Burnout is a syndrome characterized by depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a decreased sense of personal satisfaction that can be associated with work-related stress,” said Thomas K. Varghese Jr., MD, MS, head of the Section of General Thoracic Surgery, executive medical director, and chief value officer at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
"Surgeons are at great risk for developing burnout symptoms because of long work hours, delayed career gratification, and what is admittedly not the best work-life balance."
To obtain a better sense of the burnout problem within cardiothoracic surgery training in the US, researchers surveyed members of the Thoracic Surgery Residents Association in March 2019.
Nearly 60% of respondents said they had feelings of burnout a few times a month or more frequently. In addition, 44.4% reported feeling down, depressed, or hopeless in the previous month. And 25.9% said that if given the choice, they would not choose to complete a cardiothoracic surgery residency again.
“These findings are important since the overall wellbeing of our trainees will impact our cardiothoracic surgical community, as well as the patients we’re working to serve together,” Dr. Chow said.
Compounding the problem is that it’s not only surgeons and trainees who may be feeling burned out.
Nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other team members are at risk as well, according to Susan D. Moffatt-Bruce, MD, PhD, MBA, chief executive officer of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in Ottawa.
“Our efforts to improve our wellness index and our environment need to be multidisciplinary and really engage our team members,” she said.
Examining the Root Causes and Consequences
Several factors may predispose cardiothoracic surgeons, trainees, and other members of the health care team to burn out.
“Surgeons are at great risk for developing burnout symptoms because of long work hours, delayed career gratification, and what is admittedly not the best work-life balance,” Dr. Varghese said.
"Networks matter. Friends matter. Take the time to engage with them."
Given these taxing responsibilities, addressing risk factors for burnout early on—while still in residency—may help prepare surgeons to succeed in their careers.
“As we train our fellows and residents, we need to teach them not only surgery, but also the soft skills that they will need to integrate into organizations which oftentimes are very different than the organization in which they’ve trained,” Dr. Hubka said.
Surgeons and trainees can make an effort to improve their personal resilience by prioritizing their basic needs—exercising, eating well, and getting adequate sleep—and building strong networks of colleagues, friends, and family members to whom they can turn when situations are challenging.
“Networks matter,” Dr. Moffatt-Bruce advised. “Friends matter. Take the time to engage with them.”
Ultimately, what’s important is that the specialty tackle this problem head-on and encourage those suffering from burnout to reach out for help, Dr. Varghese said.
>Watch a roundtable discussion on burnout featuring Drs. Chow, Hubka, Moffatt-Bruce, and Varghese at sts.org/burnout. The conversation also is available as an episode on the Surgical Hot Topics podcast; subscribe at sts.org/podcast.
>An educational session on burnout also was held at the STS 56th Annual Meeting; you can listen to the lectures and view slides in Annual Meeting Online.