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Solutions for patient burnout are emerging

February 6, 2018
by H. Steven Moffic
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Addressing burnout is all the rage now in discussing health and mental healthcare workplaces. The prevalence of burnout in clinicians and administrators is at epidemic levels.

Clearly, burnout is detrimental to the caregivers and their mental health. That also adversely affects patient care. Solutions for this burnout are rapidly emerging.

However, in addition, perhaps psychiatric patients can also burnout from the repercussions of their mental illness. Burnout has not been applied to patients because it is a concept generally only applied to workers in the treatment profession. The reason for that seems to be that the original studies of burnout were done in regard to the workplace and that focus has continued.

Yet, there are aspects of being a psychiatric patient that seem similar to our work, and that is the work they themselves must do to get better. Moreover, akin to the major cause of burnout in psychiatrists, physicians and other mental healthcare disciplines, the obstacles in our systems are likely to adversely affect the patients as much as the professionals.

Especially for the most seriously and chronically mentally ill, there are many obstacles to improvement. They include:

  • Strong stigma against the mentally ill;
  • Inadequate resources for care;
  • Side effects of medication; and
  • Psychiatrists and other clinicians who ignore the concerns of their patients.

To counter them, principles of recovery and resilience have gained more currency. Recovery emphasizes addressing the concerns of the patient, and resilience is the increased personal strength that can come out of the recovery process.

Like burnout in the workplace, there are also personal factors that may contribute to patient burnout:

  • Lack of wellness practices such as exercise and a good diet;
  • Frequency of trauma in the background of psychiatric patients;
  • Some aspects of treatment, especially enforced hospitalization, that are triggers to memories of past trauma and traumatizing in their own right;
  • Deficit of social support, so essential to developing more resilience; and
  • Workplaces in the community that often do not tolerate the limitations of patients who are hired.

If burnout is relevant to the lives of the mentally ill, how can acknowledging that help them?

  • We can examine whether our systems empower patients adequately and realistically;
  • We can include patient representatives in our decision-making deliberations;
  • We can be sure to respect what they feel is most important and meaningful in their lives; and
  • Attention to burnout in psychiatric patients can increase our empathy with patients as both we and patients are subject to becoming mentally ill and/or burning out.

For us, the principles of recovery and resilience that have been applied to patients can be applied to our own well-being. We are all in this together.


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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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