How do you recover from burnout? One doctor reveals how he did it

When it comes to physician burnout, Shawn C. Jones, M.D., knows firsthand how bad it can be.

It started in medical school and continued through his residency and early years as a head and neck surgeon. But then as the father of young children working in a burgeoning practice, he found he was emotionally exhausted and so depressed that his wife, who is also a physician, thought there was something physically wrong and suggested he needed a CT scan.

“It came to a head where it became obvious I needed to lay down the scalpel and get some help,” he says.

Jones did something he says too many doctors are afraid to do. He took six weeks off from his practice and got into intensive outpatient therapy to deal with the emotional numbness he was experiencing.

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Shawn C. Jones
Shawn C. Jones, M.D.
(Courtesy of Dr. Jones)

Like most doctors, at one point he would have thought taking time off from medicine wasn’t possible. He recalls a physician in his community who felt that way. He was afraid of the repercussions, such as raised eyebrows from colleagues, and what would happen to his patients and practice. Instead of seeking help, the doctor ended up committing suicide. “All of the things you fear happen,” he says.

Jones, 58, said stepping away from medicine “was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

He wrote about his story of burnout and recovery in a book, “Finding Heart in Art: A Surgeon’s Renaissance Approach to Healing Modern Medical Burnout.” He said doctors experiencing burnout need to reconnect with their humanity and spirit.

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“It’s been very gratifying getting my story out,” he said, and he hopes it will help other doctors, many of whom just keep their head down and suffer through their burnout. Too many doctors push their emotions to the side and downplay feelings of anger, hurt, loneliness and fear, he said. 

It wasn’t until he got out of therapy that Jones reconnected with his love of Renaissance art. He said it’s important that physicians find their own outlet to connect them to beauty and the humanities. It might be a love of music or going for a hike. “Whatever it is that feeds your soul,” he said.

Community involvement has also been a key for him. Jones participates in overseas medical mission trips once a year to countries such as Romania, Kenya and Honduras. “I find there the feeling I may have lost here. It helps me recognize what being a doctor is all about,” he said.

He is also the current president of The Kentucky Foundation for Medical Care, a nonprofit, charitable organization trying to improve the health of its citizens through medical education and public health initiatives.

While healthcare organizations have begun to recognize the toll of physician burnout, Jones said it is often a slow process to bring about change. Doctors need to be honest about the struggles they might be having and be able to share them.

Jones brings together a group of about five physicians at his house every other week for about an hour. The group fosters relationships and provides connections.

For doctors wondering about their mental health, Jones has created a free assessment tool that provides doctors with immediate feedback on their own risk of burnout. Depending on which survey you read, 51% to 54% of physicians in the U.S. experience symptoms of burnout, he said.

About 74% of the physicians who take the evaluation on his website suffer from burnout. Doctors who are feeling burnout shouldn’t ignore it, he said. “They can seek professional advice. It’s what we tell any patient that we see,” he said.

For physicians who begin to believe what they do doesn’t matter and who no longer see the purpose in what they do, “that is not a complaint to be easily dismissed,” he said.

Where you can find help
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress, or for those who are helping a person in crisis.
  • For online chat, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides a confidential chat window with counselors available 24/7.