In 2011, the Mayo Clinic began surveying physicians about burnout and found 45% of physicians experienced at least one symptom, such as emotional exhaustion, finding work no longer meaningful, feelings of ineffectiveness, and depersonalizing patients. Associated manifestations can range from headache and insomnia to impaired memory and decreased attention.
Fast forward 10 years to the Medscape National Physician Burnout and Suicide Report, which found that a similar number of physicians (42%) feel burned out. The COVID-19 pandemic only added insult to injury. A Medscape survey that included nearly 5,000 U.S. physicians revealed that about two-thirds (64%) of them reported burnout had intensified during the crisis.
These elevated numbers are being labeled as “a public health crisis” for the impact widespread physician burnout could have on the health of the doctor and patient safety. The relatively consistent levels across the decade seem to suggest that, if health organizations are attempting to improve physician well-being, it doesn’t appear to be working, forcing doctors to find solutions for themselves.
Jill Wener, MD, considers herself part of the 45% burned out 10 years ago. She was working as an internist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, but the “existential reality of being a doctor in this world” was wearing on her. “Staying up with the literature, knowing that every day you’re going to go into work without knowing what you’re going to find, threats of lawsuits, the pressure of perfectionism,” Dr. Wener told this news organization. “By the time I hit burnout, everything made me feel like the world was crashing down on me.”
When Dr. Wener encountered someone who meditated twice a day, she was intrigued, even though the self-described “most Type-A, inside-the-box, nonspiritual type, anxious, linear-path doctor” didn’t think people like her could meditate. Dr. Wener is not alone in her hesitation to explore meditation as a means to help prevent burnout because the causes of burnout are primarily linked to external rather than internal factors. Issues including a loss of autonomy, the burden and distraction of electronic health records, and the intense pressure to comply with rules from the government are not things mindfulness can fix.
And because the sources of burnout are primarily environmental and inherent to the current medical system, the suggestion that physicians need to fix themselves with meditation can come as a slap in the face. However, when up against a system slow to change, mindfulness can provide physicians access to the one thing they can control: How they perceive and react to what’s in front of them.
At the recommendation of an acquaintance, Dr. Wener enrolled in a Vedic Meditation (also known as Conscious Health Meditation) course taught by Light Watkins, a well-known traveling instructor, author, and speaker. By the second meeting she was successfully practicing 20 minutes twice a day. This form of mediation traces its roots to the Vedas, ancient Indian texts (also the foundation for yoga), and uses a mantra to settle the mind, transitioning to an awake state of inner contentment.
Three weeks later, Dr. Wener’s daily crying jags ended as did her propensity for road rage. “I felt like I was on the cusp of something life-changing, I just didn’t understand it,” she recalled. “But I knew I was never going to give it up.”