• Sara & Colin Taylor

Overflowing Stress

The reasons why a physician experiences burnout are in some ways as unique as everyone's fingerprint. Sure, some common, undeniable causes exist, often stemming from the system in which a physician works, however, two physicians working in the same system with the same stressors may have different responses to their given situation. 

To illustrate this point, let's consider two cups that contain water. Each cup represents a physician, Jane and John, and the water in their cups represents stress. Now, let's play out a sample scenario related to stress and potential burnout. 

Jane is in the midst of a marital separation and has 3 kids between the ages of 10 and 17. Her husband started a business 5 years ago and recently had to shut it down due to poor sales. Finances are very tight and their fighting is at an all time high. Her husband is moving in with one of his brothers to give the separation a trial. Jane is also concerned about her physical health. She's not as active as she used to be, due to increased household and work demands, and has gained more weight than she's happy with. At this point in time, her cup is at least 3/4 full of 'personal' stress before factoring in 'work' stress.

John on the other hand recently married the man of his dreams and they're in the process of looking into adopting a baby. His husband is a successful artist and finances aren't an issue for them. They have a very active lifestyle and social life. At this point in time, his cup is 1/8 full of 'personal' stress before factoring in 'work' stress.

You can see where this is going. Let's say they have the exact same 3/4 cup of 'work' stress - family physicians in a group practice dealing with ongoing relationship dynamics with their colleagues/staff; recent rent increase on their leased office space; recent college complaint about their front staff that needs to be addressed; usual EMR frustrations that don't seem to ever improve.

So, if you add the 3/4 cup of 'work' stress into both Jane's 3/4 cup of 'personal' stress and John's 1/8 cup of 'personal' stress...


Jane is done and done - she's officially overflowing her cup with stress, and in turn, headed towards burnout. On the other hand, although John isn't happy about his 'work' stress, his personal factors and situation can absorb more of it without overflowing his cup.

We believe that this is where the individual factors, that much of the literature talks about, come into play. Yes, stress management techniques might help Jane somewhat but won't likely change her overflowing cup. Chances are most people couldn't absorb a 3/4 cup of 'work' stress. And John, well let's face it, most of us dream of his low level of 'personal' stress.

“Burnout is a war that must be won on two fronts.” ~ Jeanine Joy, Burnout: Prevention and Recovery, Resilience and Retention

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