How To Avoid Eye Care Practitioner Burnout

By Kate Gettinger, OD September 09, 2020

Now, perhaps more than ever, eye care practitioners around the country are feeling the effects of physical and emotional burnout. 2020 was supposed to be our year! And yet many of us are struggling with making up for financial losses early in the spring, trying to address the needs of patients who put off care during the pandemic, as well as keep abreast of every CDC update and new guideline.

If you weren’t a little exhausted before, the pandemic certainly didn’t help matters.

According to a review published in the American Journal of Medicine, physicians have been experiencing increasing rates of “burnout,” with many studies showing that younger physicians are having twice the rate of burnout as their older colleagues.

Our lives so often revolve around the idea of improving the health of others, so it can be easy to forget to check in on our own health. According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, those whose work involves intense human interaction levels, such as doctors, nurses, and teachers, are much more likely to experience burnout. So many factors contribute to doctor burnout that it is unfair to correlate it simply to an increased workload. So what all is at play?

Causes of Burnout in Eye Care Practitioners

While workload definitely plays a critical role in the incidence of burnout, it is not the only contributing factor that can bring about sufficient cause. According to reports, some other facets that can play a role in burnout can include:

  • Practice setting
  • Methods of dealing with medical mistakes or malpractice
  • Lack of control over work environment
  • Uneven work-life balance
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Patient characteristics
  • Type of specialty

Factors from the home can also seep into our professional lives and contribute to stress. When our work lives compete with our home lives, it can create a tension that can eventually develop into burnout.

Being Burnt Out Is Not A FailureFor example, if we consistently have to work late so that it makes us unable to pick up our kids on time, or unable to be punctual for date night, it can start to make us resent our work and feel overwhelmed by the lack of balance.

Certain practice settings may foster more unbalanced relationships between home life and work. If you’re contractually obligated to be on call 5 out of 7 nights of the week, you might not find yourself feeling like you’re not getting much time to live outside of your practice. If you’re trying to balance patient care and staff drama and paying office bills and insurance woes, there may be little time left to focus on what you need.

Sometimes when we try to balance too many spinning plates at once, the result is that all the plates come crashing down.

Consequences of Burnout

Not only does burnout leave us feeling exhausted both emotionally and physically, but it can have a much more widespread effect. According to the same American Journal of Medicine literature review, physicians experiencing burnout may also report:

  • Depression
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Anxiety
  • Increased rate of staff turnover
  • Increased rate of medical error
  • Cynicism
  • Divorce
  • Substance abuse
  • Increased relationship disruption
  • Depersonalization (also called “compassion fatigue”)
  • A sense of low personal achievement

According to a study conducted at a physician’s residency program in Seattle, Washington, burnout was fairly common among residents and it resulted in self-reported admission that patients recieved suboptimal care as a consequence.

When we are feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, the care we provide to patients can suffer, as well as our personal lives. Knowing how at-risk those in our profession are for burnout, we need to be especially good at recognizing the signs of it and doing what we can to avoid it.

How to Avoid Eye Care Practitioner Burnout

3 Key Principles to Nurse Burnout Prevention SolutionsWhen you have to sit through the safety demonstration before a flight, you’ll see the flight attendants demonstrate what to do in case the main cabin suddenly loses oxygen. They advise you to place your own oxygen mask on and make sure it is secure before trying to help others. The same analogy can apply to eye care professionals on the verge of burnout.

If we aren’t taking the time and care to make sure our own lives are healthy, then we are often not in a condition to help secure the health status of our patients. Take a step back to give yourself the time you need to take care of yourself.

According to surveys administered to physicians to identify strategies for coping with burnout, several key strategies emerged:

  • Religious or spiritual practice
  • General self-awareness (i.e., taking time to think about how you are feeling)
  • Open communication in relationships with family and colleagues (being comfortable talking about stress or burnout symptoms)
  • Engaging in hobbies or exercise
  • Establishing a strong social support group

From these surveys, we can identify strategies to help combat the incidence of burnout. Keeping a balance between work and personal life that allows for the cultivation of friendship and family outside of work, or engaging in spiritual or religious pursuits, or simply doing something because you find it enjoyable, such as a hobby, even if it doesn’t directly contribute to your career, can be a huge step in preventing burnout.

Too often in this day and age, we are overwhelmed by messages that we are not enough. We need to be constantly working to be better, to be bigger, to make more money, see more patients, treat more diseases. The American dream of “more is better”  combined with the high intensity of the medical field can be a ripe environment for burnout.

200+ Free Covid Doctor & Doctor Illustrations - PixabayIt can be helpful to recognize that we don’t have to be a superhero. Let’s face it: even most superheroes have a difficult time balancing their work (saving the world) and their personal lives (working for the daily paper, trying to make it to a date with their girlfriend on time while not spoiling their secret identity in the process.) We don’t have to be perfect, and we aren’t.

Step back and take a deep breath and acknowledge that it is okay to say no to things or take some time off. Make your self-care a priority. Remember that if you aren’t in good health, mentally or physically, you won’t be able to practice to your full ability and you won’t enjoy what you do. Schedule in some me-time and don’t be tempted to let that time slot turn back to work.

If you’re aware of the symptoms of burnout and the consequences it can have upon you, your family, your patients, and your colleagues, you can be more adept at recognizing it and treating it before it becomes an overwhelming issue. 


Kate Gettinger, OD

Dr. Kate Gettinger grew up in upstate Illinois and obtained her Bachelor’s in Biology from Truman State University. She worked throughout her undergraduate career at an optometrist’s office and fell in love with the profession. She received her Doctorate in Optometry from University of Missouri-St. Louis Optometry School and received honors for specialization in low vision, including the William Feinbloom Low Vision Award. Dr. Gettinger enjoys treating and managing dry eye, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetes. Her professional interests include ways to improve healthcare access to at-risk communities and improving public health. Dr. Gettinger routinely contributes to optometry publications and writes both educational and advocacy articles. Currently residing in St. Louis, Dr. Gettinger enjoys spending time outdoors with her dog, trying new foods and dining out at local restaurants, playing trivia, brushing up on her French language skills, and exploring new challenges.

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