Tips for Preventing Medical Student Burnout
By: Jeffrey M. Smith, MD
Medical school is tough – you’d be hard pressed to find a physician or student who disagrees with that. With demanding academics, grueling work hours, and a lot of pressure – it’s no wonder that medical students are experiencing burnout at an alarming rate. There’s been a lot of buzz recently about the epidemic of burnout in the medical industry. And while this dialogue is great, most of it has been focused on practicing physicians and surgeons, often completely ignoring medical students who are just as, if not more likely to burn out. So let’s talk about medical student burnout. Here are a few tips for preventing burnout – specifically geared towards medical students.
No doctor or student is completely safe from burnout – it can impact anyone. However, there are things you can do to increase your resilience from burnout. The easiest place to start is adopting healthy lifestyle habits. Eat healthy, get ample sleep on a regular basis, quit smoking, cut back on alcohol consumption, and find time to exercise – all of these will help you feel healthier and be better equipped to deal with burnout if it arises.
Studying is an everyday occurrence for medical students. Do your best to stick to healthy study habits. Don’t procrastinate and cram the night before an exam. Get ahead on your studies when you can and you’ll feel less stressed and less likely to burnout.
Say No When You Need To
Spreading yourself too thinly is a classic pre-requisite for burnout. It’s important to learn when and how to say no when you need to. Obviously you shouldn’t say no to your assignments, papers, labs, tests, and other academic work, but you may need to say no to extra-curricular activities for the sake of your own health. Start by prioritizing your activities (with academics at the top) and gauging how much time they take up. Then make any necessary cuts. You don’t need to do everything – focus on what’s most important.
Consider Work-Life Rhythm Rather Than Balance
While many people want you to believe in work-life balance, they don’t tell how unlikely it is to occur as a physician. Becoming a doctor requires tremendous sacrifice and most of us want to be of service to our patients and our profession. In my experience, being in our rhythm is much more achievable and sustainable. Learn to focus on what you are doing. Learn to experience joy in what you are learning and what you get to do with that knowledge to help others.
Seek Help If You’re Feeling Burned Out
If you do begin to feel symptoms of burnout, don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help. Believe me, you are not alone! Many medical students and even experienced physicians deal with burnout regularly. Getting the help you need early on will help you deal with burnout and its symptoms now and in the future. See if your school has any burnout resources. If not, there are plenty of excellent online resources that can help you identify the cause of your burnout and find a way to recover. A few effective strategies? Consider expressive writing. Find connection with others. Share positive strategies for managing your thoughts and emotions rather than “venting.”
Jeffrey M. Smith, MD (@JeffreyMSmithMD) is a practicing orthopaedic trauma surgeon in San Diego with over 20 years in academic and private practice. When Jeff is not operating, he’s helping his wife raise their four children, integrating improvement strategies into his life, and working with his foundation (Unite Orthopaedics Foundation) or his continuing medical education company (SurgeonMasters) to improve the lives of physicians and patients.
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