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Physician Burnout: Why Work-Life Balance Is a Moving Target

Roxana Moayer, MD, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Keck Medicine of USC, shares her tips for work-life balance.

By Roxana Moayer, MD
Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon
USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery
Keck Medicine of USC

Are more physicians burned out today — or does it just seem like it because we now talk about the problem more openly? Either way, I think it’s great that physician burnout is being discussed publicly and that we are gaining a better understanding of how to address it.

Physicians grapple with very different demands compared to 20 years ago. The way patients consume health care has changed, and the way physicians communicate with patients and with each other has shifted. These changes have added extra burden on physicians, requiring additional bandwidth.

It’s also important to remember that the term burnout means different things to different people. When we say burnout, does it mean that we want to leave our jobs at a higher rate than before? Or does it simply mean that we’re not enjoying our work as much as we used to?

Burnout is a complicated problem. Here are some of my thoughts about burnout and work-life balance for physicians.

Take care of yourself as best you can.

A lot of this is basic. Getting good sleep is critical. Take care of yourself physically. I love surfing and snowboarding, and outdoor activities with friends and family are centering and restorative for me. I’m a beach lover, so anytime I can make it to the beach for a walk, to surf or to catch the sunset is really rejuvenating.

Do what fulfills you.

I remember being asked in medical school what I would consider success at the end of my career. I said that if, at the end of my career, I’m as excited about medicine as I am now, I’ll consider that a success. Maybe I had some awareness then that burnout would be something to combat later. In any case, I think what I said then still holds true.

To avoid burnout, make sure you’re doing what you find most fulfilling. Facial plastic and reconstructive surgery improves a patient’s quality of life, whether it be helping someone who has a paralyzed face to smile again, or helping someone who can’t breathe through their nose to breathe again. I can see the quality of life my patients gain. That gratification, as well as the mental stimulation and opportunity to teach residents, is very fulfilling to me. It makes my work feel like more than just a job.

When I am feeling burned out, I take inventory. Am I still fulfilled and excited? What’s causing the imbalance between what I’m really excited to do and what I have to do? Obviously, there are always going to be challenges, but I do think that some sort of balance exists.

Remind colleagues to take care of themselves.

My colleagues and I will remind each other to seek balance. When we’re juggling so much, it’s helpful to be reminded to make it a habit to take care of ourselves.

Find a way for technology to help, not hinder.

All physicians want to spend more time with patients and deliver excellent care. The part of work that surgeons most enjoy is being face to face with patients or operating on them. We become frustrated when we feel like a disproportionate amount of our time is spent on tasks that don’t make the best use of our training. A typical example is time spent on computers rather than with patients.

Technology can help us; we just need to figure out how it can help us rather than hinder us. The way we integrate technology will always be a work in progress because technology is always changing. We need to embrace that fact. Artificial intelligence is now a regular topic of discussion among my colleagues. Even though a lot of us, myself included, don’t know much about AI yet, it’s worthwhile for us to learn so that we can put best practices in place and use it to free up more time to spend with our patients and work with colleagues.

Rather than just being frustrated with technology, let’s determine how we can use it better. The more we can learn about it, the better we can use it, and the more it can help us.

Be honest with yourself.

Be honest about what you want out of life and your career, and then pursue the things that support that and let go of what doesn’t. Figure out what is within your control to adjust.

If I’m feeling overly fatigued, or if I’m not enjoying things as much as usual, then that’s a good time for me to pause and reflect. A lot of this takes mindfulness both on a daily basis and then periodically checking in with yourself. Assess how things are going, and then recalibrate. It isn’t like one day we have it all figured out. We have to stay intentional and in tune because everything is a moving target.

Staying balanced makes you a better physician.

I teach residents that there is a direct relationship between their health and their work as a surgeon. We’re sort of like mini performance athletes. Your body has to work well and your mind has to be sharp in order to deliver the best care and achieve the best outcomes.

It’s like when I’m surfing: when I’m in great shape and strong, surfing is fun. When I’m exhausted and not feeling great, it’s less fun. The same holds true in medicine: taking care of yourself well allows you to take care of your patients well.


Roxana Moayer, MD, is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.

At the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, part of Keck Medicine of USC, specialists provide personalized care for a range of ear, nose and throat conditions. As one of the nation’s most comprehensive otolaryngology programs, the team combines research with the latest technology to provide the best care.