Is the term “Burnout” being overused?

The healthcare industry has been talking about Physician “Burnout” for decades, but this concept is no longer resonating with those in the healthcare industry. Providers and their colleagues are moving away from the term as it implies that the individual is the source of, or at least plays a role in, the issues they face.

The very term “Burn out”, when Googled, is defined as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.” This is definitely an apt description of how many Physicians and healthcare workers feel, but it lacks depth and inadvertently suggests that the onus is on the individual.

Think about it, we are often given tips and tricks for combatting daily stressors…

  • Feeling overwhelmed? Allow more time for each appointment!
  • Emotionally drained? Use your vacation days and recharge!
  • Lacking resources? Hire help!

See what I mean? The term burnout inherently implies that the answer lies within. If you want to prevent “burnout” you must fuel your flame. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great tips and the term definitely has its merit. The pain is real, but the problem is much bigger. It’s time to stretch our thinking, perhaps “burnout” is a symptom of something larger, something systemic.

If not burnout, then what?

Realizing that there has to be more at play here, those truly interested in the overall well-being of our healthcare providers have been looking at this phenomenon and digging deeper. Most of us can agree that our doctors and nurses are, in general, high achieving, intellectual and resourceful individuals – so why do so many of them “burnout“?

The most inspiring, humanizing article I have come across on the topic, digs deeper and sheds light on the truer problem, Moral Injury. Stumbling across this term as I work to understand burnout, it was definitely a point of pause. What a much better way to describe the common plight.

Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression,[1] which produces profound emotional guilt and shame,[2] and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound “moral disorientation”.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Hmmm. Pretty deep stuff, but if you dig into it, it’s much more aligned with the true condition we are seeking to describe. Suddenly the term “burnout” seems completely wrong, an outdated label that doesn’t really apply anymore.

The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma.[1] Distinct from psychopathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event… Among healthcare professionals, moral injury refers to unaddressed moral distress leading to the accumulation of serious inner conflict that may overwhelm one’s sense of goodness and humanity.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As a Physician Assistant who now spends my time connecting Physicians, PA’s and NP’s with employers, I have seen hundreds of articles and tips on the topic of burnout. I get where they are coming from, we even shared advice on this very subject in an article entitled “Physician Assistant Burnout: Symptoms and Treatment” on our blog earlier this year.

Burnout is real, but a line needs to be drawn. Perhaps burnout is a condition that can be addressed from the standpoint of the individual, where moral injury goes further, digging into a systemic condition. Can one condition exist without the other? Or is burnout a symptom of moral injury? Maybe it’s semantics, but the nuance resonates with me and I think it’s worth differentiating between the two.

One of the better articles I have come across on the topic is “Treating Physician Burnout – When the Doctor Becomes the Patient” by the PA Doctor. This well-written piece digs into the matter, helping the average person to empathize with healthcare workers. An excerpt from the piece gives you some insight:

Drs. Dean and Talbot suggest that the increasingly complex web of providershighly conflicted allegiances — to patients, to self, and to employers — and its attendant moral injury may be driving the health care ecosystem to a tipping point and causing the collapse of resilience.” They continue, The moral injury of health care is not the offense of killing another human in the context of war. It is being unable to provide high-quality care and healing in the context of health care.” (excerpt)

The article goes on to dig into the author’s first-hand experience, outlining a typical day to enlighten the reader on the incredible depth of the flaws in the system. He (or she, PA Doctor articles are anonymously written) is no stranger to the fact that the masses give little consideration to the plight of their doctors. The idea that Physicians are well compensated seems to prevail, but as you read on you start to understand how a six-figure salary isn’t necessarily a reasonable way to summarize the validity of the condition.

What next?

No matter what you want to call it, we know there is a problem. We know there is burnout occurring in our healthcare workers, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it’s beyond the individual. It’s time for a change at the systemic level. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, click here and connect with me on LinkedIn.



Lynda Gregg practiced as a PA in General Pediatrics and Pediatric Cardiology. She desires to help, heal and network. It is no wonder that Lynda has progressed from practicing as a PA to serving PAs. She is a tried and true connector with a passion for the industry and for helping medical professionals flourish in their careers.