Despite increased national attention towards the clinician burnout epidemic, there still isn’t a consensus about what causes it. The issue seems to have roots in clinicians’ intense lifestyles and exhausting line of work. Studies are beginning to examine the emotional dimension of clinical practice and its relationship to clinician burnout, with one published in 2012 finding it correlates strongly with a phenomenon termed “compassion fatigue.” What is compassion fatigue and what does it have to do with burnout?
There are two components to compassion fatigue, one of them being clinician burnout and the other a phenomenon called secondary traumatic stress. This study defines burnout as a lack of “compassion satisfaction,” emotional pleasure derived from belief in one’s clinical competency. Remove satisfaction or understanding, and compassion fatigue — burnout — sets in. The other component, secondary traumatic stress (STS), is caused by identification with traumatized individuals. Up to one-third of clinicians may be suffering from STS.
Predictors of Burnout
Burnout, compassion fatigue, and STS were all closely correlated. The study found that these conditions were overall more prevalent among younger clinicians, those with complicated family dynamics, and those who work in oncology and Diabetology. While clinician burnout within oncology is well-documented, diabetology may come as a surprise. The article suggests this may owe to the higher amount of “time and empowerment” diabetes patients demand.
Doctors working in private, as opposed to governmental, setups tended to show higher compassion satisfaction, as did those reporting right working conditions. Another interesting finding: clinicians experiencing compassion fatigue were more likely to have stressful financial situations.
Factors about physical health, including cholesterol, smoking, hypertension, and diabetes, did not correlate with compassion fatigue.
This data suggests that clinician burnout is a matter of quality of life. It is likely that clinician burnout must be addressed on a practice-to-practice basis, with clinicians asking themselves: what are the stressors caused by our practice, and how can working conditions be improved to offset them? Clinicians’ holistic well-being is no less important than clients’ — the key to its maintenance might be in the clinic itself.
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