Why Your Physicians Burn Out — and How Locum Tenens can help

In 2013, the American Medical Association (AMA) reported that nearly 50% of emergency medicine physicians said they felt burned out. By 2017, this rate had jumped to 60%.

It’s a problem — and one that can easily lead to more problems. In addition to primary areas of concern like patient safety and positive outcome measures, burnout can increase the risk of issues like malpractice, clinician safety, and even mortality rates.

Suffice it to say: this burnout thing really needs to be addressed. It’s not just going to go away. So let’s talk about it — what causes burnout for physicians, and how we can fight it.

Medicine is Intense. If you’re in a position in which lives literally depend upon your ability to do your job well, burnout will be high. This applies whether you’re a cardiologist, air traffic controller, or firefighter. There’s a reason that burnout rates are much higher for ER physicians than they are for plastic surgeons. It makes sense.

Physicians who’ve dealt with burnout in the past agree that one way to reduce symptoms can be found in the acronym ESS: regular exercise; sharing feelings and being transparent with loved ones; and getting enough quality sleep.

That’s solid advice, and it’s helped many stave off burnout, but sometimes a more drastic response may be appropriate. Many doctors have started using locum tenens opportunities as a way to temporarily step away from their current, high-pressure situation in exchange for a slower pace, a working vacation where the stress is greatly reduced. Especially since rural areas often have greater needs for locum tenens medical professionals, it can be an opportunity to still help and still practice medicine, but at a different tempo.

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When Life Piles On. In the medical profession, having the ability to recharge at home when you’re actually off the clock is essential. How great that life is so accommodating, then, and always goes the way we expect it to. Now that we’ve all stopped laughing, we can acknowledge that stress at home can drive a physician to burnout even when they’re handling pressure at work. Maybe it’s a teen who’s been getting into drugs or having trouble in school, or something less dramatic — whatever the root cause, when home stops being a refuge, pressure from work feels more insurmountable.

Again, a change of scenery may be the solution. Some physicians bring their families with them on locum tenens assignments. Depending on the situation, getting away from “real life” for a while may be beneficial for everybody — and, if medicine is your calling, locum tenens work fulfills a very real need.

The Leadership Skills of Immediate Superiors. Some bosses decrease stress on their employees; some increase it. This is true in any profession, and medical fields are certainly not immune. The medical profession has quite enough burnout without increasing factors from incompetent, lazy, or angry supervisors making things worse. That being said, there are clear steps that skilled administrators can take to relieve pressure from their staff as well.

Short-term locum tenens professionals can be hired through staffing firms and can be monumentally beneficial when it comes to decreasing burnout among physicians. Not only does the pay and salary of locum tenens often benefit the medical organization as a whole, but by having short-term professionals on-hand, physicians can be encouraged to take much-needed time off without worrying about the negative repercussions their absence might have. Additionally, workloads don’t have to be absorbed by a single physician. Locum tenens professionals brought in can provide needed, expert support.

Burnout is a real issue and deserves real solutions. Fortunately, whether through well-worn solutions like exercise and rest, or through the help of locum tenens opportunities on either side, burnout doesn’t have to win. There are ways to fight it.

MORE: Tips for recruiting millennial physicians


Scott Cook

Scott Cook
Scott Cook is a freelance writer who has covered topics ranging from healthcare to business leadership. He can be reached at scotty33cook (at) gmail (dot) com.

Scott Cook

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