Life + Career Physician Wellness DO Well Toolkit Spotting Warning Signs

Spotting Warning Signs

Red flags

Learn what to look for and when to seek help

Identifying the problem is the first step toward preventing and recovering from burnout, exhaustion and depression.

The issue of mental wellness is a significant one for physicians. Burnout, depression and suicidal ideation within the profession are well-documented. In a recent Medscape survey, 42% of physician respondents reported experiencing burnout and 15% admitted to experiencing depression.


Burnout is common among medical professionals. It’s defined as a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment. It causes feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Warning signs:

You might be experiencing burnout if you:

  • Feel tired all the time and lack energy.
  • Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Experience forgetfulness or struggle to concentrate.
  • Become pessimistic.
  • Have feelings of incompetence, poor achievement and low motivation
  • Feel isolated.
  • Experience hopelessness or other signs of depression.

Next steps:

Taking time for yourself can help boost your energy level and resilience. You can reduce burnout and recharge by:

  • Talking with trusted friends, spending time in nature, listening to music or carving out a little time for a favorite hobby.
  • Finding a meaningful activity outside of medicine, such as volunteering, joining a club or training for a marathon.
  • Joining peers for an exercise class or a group run. A JAOA study found those who worked out in a group experienced a reduction in stress levels compared to those who worked out solo.
  • Practicing mindfulness with a meditation app or simply closing your eyes to focus on your breathing.
  • Getting more Zzs. Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep. To get there, slowly add more time for rest and build up to your goal.
  • Establishing initiatives at work to limit work hours and creating safe havens for discussing challenges with peers.


Sometimes we all feel down, struggle to get out of bed or lost interest in things that make us happy and healthy. But when these feelings become common, it could be a sign you’re suffering from depression.

As common in the medical profession as in the general population, depression affects an estimated 12% of males and up to 19.5% of females. It is even more common in medical students and residents, with 15-30% of them screening positive for depressive symptoms.

Physicians suffering from depression may experience decreased quality of care, increased medical errors, lower patient satisfaction and higher rates of turnover. In your personal life, you may see broken relationships and substance abuse.

Warning Signs:

If you have been suffering from any of these signs and symptoms for more than two weeks, it may be time to get evaluated for depression:

  • Physical: Decreased energy or fatigue; changes in appetite or weight; changes in sexual appetite or functions; somatization
  • Emotional: Increased irritability, anger or aggressiveness; difficulty concentrating; emotional deadness; cynicism and disillusionment; loss of mental energy; negative attitude about oneself or others
  • Lifestyle changes: Changes in normal sleep patterns; procrastination or avoidance of decision-making; loss of interest in hobbies and activities; chronic tardiness; isolation from family, friends and colleagues; self-medication

Next steps:

Depression is a common and serious medical illness – but it’s treatable. You should speak with your physician immediately if you suspect you may be suffering from depression.


Suicide can start with ideation, or the contemplation of ending one’s own life. These thoughts may arise in people who feel completely hopeless or believe they can no longer cope with their life situation.

Warning Signs:

  • Thoughts: Feeling like or thinking you’re a burden to others; experiencing unbearable pain; believing there is no reason to live; feeling trapped
  • Behavior: Increased use of alcohol or drugs; acting recklessly; isolating from friends and family; withdrawing, sleeping too much or too little; aggression; calling people to say goodbye; looking for ways to kill oneself
  • Mood: Depression; loss of interest; humiliation; irritability; anxiety; rage

Next steps:

It’s time to find help. Talk to your physician. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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