Preventing Burnout in Medical Students

By Janet Taylor


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Medical school is an incredibly stressful endeavor with high stress levels and burnout among even first year students. The psychologist Herbert Freudenberge brought the term burnout to light in 1974 and describes it as “the loss of motivation, growing sense of emotional depletion, and cynicism” (Michel, 2016).


Students may prepare for the transition from undergraduate or graduate studies, but many find that the massive amount of material is difficult to take in in such a short time while the demand for success is always lingering. This leads to frustration, feeling incompetent and emotional exhaustion.


The problem here is that not being able to get a handle on these issues will have a psychological, social and emotional impact both short and long term. Personal relationships and physical health may suffer, as well as academics initially, but in the long term, patient care will also be affected.


Also, continuously stressed students run the risk of reworking the wiring of their brains, stressing the heart and jacking up their neuroendocrine systems. The Maslach Burnout Inventory is a tool used to measure burnout risk. As many as twenty percent of clinical year students in a study by Bugaj et al. ranked high enough to be marked at risk for burnout. “The scale evaluates burnout based on three key stress responses: an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense of professional ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (Michel, 2016).


Many programs have taken initiative to curb the overwhelming nature of their curriculums by introducing stress management courses. One successful example is the Heidelberger anti-stress seminar. This seminar series is a student led seminar that meets several times a week to address concerns and vent if the need arises. The benefit here is that it is peer led.


So what’s the significance?


As medical students, there comes intimidation when around attendings or even experienced professors. There is also the idea that one should not complain since this field was chosen. Peer led groups put the tutors and the students on equal footing. The students realize that these tutors have just moved past what they are experiencing, so they can relate well to them. There are various features that can be used in this type of program, as listed in the chart below.



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This seminar series got great feedback from the students and tutors. There are many suggestions out there for improving stress levels including journaling, exercise, yoga, meditation and if needed, medication. Ultimately, becoming a physician is the goal and a team approach might just be the best way to beat burnout.


Think you’re at risk for severe burnout? Check out our quiz to find out!


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Bugaj, T. J., Mücksch, C., Schmid, C., Junne, F., Erschens, R., Herzog, W., & Nikendei, C. (2016). Peer-led Stress Prevention Seminars in the First Year of Medical School – A Project Report. GMS Journal for Medical Education, 33(1), Doc3.

Michel, Alexandra(2016). Burnout and the Brain. Observer Magazine.


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