How To Think Beyond Burnout To Build A Better Life

By Sylvan Waller | March 12, 2020

So many people are talking about physician burnout right now.

There are lots of articles raising the alarm about the dire state of the healthcare system.

And is it any surprise? Physicians enter into med school expecting:

  • The deep satisfaction of helping people
  • Regular intellectual stimulation
  • High compensation proportionate to hours worked
  • A high standing in their community
  • To feel like your effort makes a difference in the world


Daily, a physician’s reality is more likely filled with:

  • Inefficient data entry into EMRs
  • Checking tick boxes on reimbursement forms
  • Meeting regulatory requirements that aren’t scientifically proven to improve patient care
  • Staggering student loan debt


Overall, physicians are now required to work harder and reap less reward than ever before.

So, yes. We’re overworked, overburdened, and overstressed.

The secret? It really and truly doesn’t have to be that way.

Change is possible

The challenge of work-life balance in medicine isn’t new. A 2012 study titled, “Burnout and Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance Among US Physicians Relative to the General US Population” has been cited more than 1,000 times as researchers work from the outside in to define, diagnose, and treat the issue.

But for those of us who wrestle with this reality on a daily basis, it’s fundamentally important to shift the conversation away from how burnt out we are, towards actions we can take to address our circumstances and improve our lives.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

When passion isn’t enough

In residency, I had a caring attending who advised me to find my passion outside of clinical medicine so that I could focus on those interests when things get tough.

We talked about the fact that physicians are leaving medicine in larger numbers than ever before. A passion project, he advised me, was a way to extend my career.

Years later, and I have a different perspective.

Much like finding time to “get to your to do list”, for many people “finding your passion” is one of those things that sounds great but never gets done.

We’re too busy working, taking the kids to soccer, and writing that board report to ever prioritize finding our passions.

So I urge you: Don’t wait.

Don’t wait until inspiration strikes.

Don’t want for you passion to suddenly dawn on you.

Don’t wait until you’re ready to abandon the profession you’ve invested decades of your life, and so much of your heart, into.

Don’t wait until you’re so close to retirement that you decide it’s better just to stay the course a few more years. Hey, what’s five more years of misery, after all?

This is your life we’re talking about. Your one shot to enjoy your time on Earth. To do what you entered medicine to do: find meaning. Help people. Feel like your effort makes a difference in the world.

So don’t wait.

Instead, take your happiness — and career satisfaction — into your own hands.

The path forward

I’ll argue any day that transforming your career has to be an active process.

Ideally, physicians can start before the first signs of burnout. We need to train new physicians to explore how to create a comprehensive career plan that incorporates ways to test and explore new interests.

If you’re already experiencing the effects of burnout, it’s not too late.

As long as you — say it with me — don’t wait.

To get started, simply begin to test ideas that take advantage of your background and play to your current interests.

Like watching the UFC like I do?

Then volunteer to support your local fight scene.  Get the experience, see if you like it, and if you do, add it to your career.

Remember, these interests and projects don’t have to pay the bills in the beginning.  When I started getting involved in leadership in my hospital, none of it was paid.  I liked the experience and knew it would build key skills for my future goals.

Whatever it is that you’d like to get more involved in (and as you read this, whatever pops into your mind is that thing)… what are you waiting for?


If you’re a physician interested in designing a new life, join our private, physicians-only Facebook group.

You might also like:


This post originally appeared in my newsletter.