Emotional exhaustion, physical exhaustion, compassion fatigue. Sound familiar? These are dimensions of the burnout syndrome which affects 6 out of 10 US physicians. It may sound obvious, but what exhaustion needs is rest of good quantity and quality. The few hours of sleep snatched between ‘Pajama time’ and commute does not, in our view, equal good enough rest.
If adequate rest – both time off, time to sleep, and vacations – are essential to recharge our medical batteries, what would the effects of a longer period of time off be on physician burnout? We propose that taking a sabbatical can be an effective way for physicians to alleviate burnout and improve their overall well-being. In this article, we will explore the effects of a sabbatical on physician burnout, well-being, job retention, and patient outcomes, and other relevant positive effects.
The modern-day use of the term “sabbatical” is rooted in this biblical concept of rest and renewal. It typically refers to a period of time (usually several months to a year) during which an individual takes a break from work to focus on personal or professional development, travel, or other activities.
During a sabbatical, individuals are encouraged to step back from their daily routines and responsibilities in order to gain perspective and recharge their batteries.
While the biblical concept of the Sabbath and the modern-day sabbatical are not identical, they share a common emphasis on the importance of taking time for rest, reflection, and renewal. In today’s fast-paced, high-pressure medical environment, the sabbatical has become an increasingly important tool for promoting well-being, reducing burnout, and supporting personal and professional growth.
The use of sabbaticals appears to be on the increase according to Forbes, especially for employees with longer periods of service. Around 16% of US companies offer sabbaticals in various forms.
However, according to the AHA’s 2020 survey of hospital and health system benefits, which surveyed 308 organizations, only 7% reported offering sabbaticals to their physicians. This is a slight increase from the 6% reported in the 2017 survey, but suggests that sabbaticals are still not widely offered in the US healthcare system. (It is important to note that the survey only included a small sample of organizations and may not be fully representative of all hospitals and health systems in the US. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted the availability and utilization of sabbaticals in the healthcare industry.)
However, the survey also found that many hospitals / healthcare employers offered other forms of time off or career development opportunities for physicians, such leadership training programs.
Dr. Smith* is a primary care physician who has been working for ten years. She was feeling burned out and tired of the daily routine of seeing patients. She felt like she was not making a difference in her patients’ lives and was becoming increasingly disengaged from her work. Dr. Smith decided to take a sabbatical to recharge and refresh herself.
During her sabbatical, Dr. Smith traveled to Europe and Asia, where she immersed herself in different cultures, explored new foods, and learned new skills. She also volunteered at a local clinic in Cambodia, where she provided medical care to underprivileged children. Dr. Smith returned to work feeling rejuvenated and reenergized. She found herself more engaged with her patients and more motivated to make a difference in their lives.
A sabbatical can be a powerful tool for reducing physician burnout. Burnout, as we’ve written, is caused by a combination of factors, including excessive workload, lack of control, insufficient time off, and a sense of disconnection from one’s work.
Sabbaticals can help to address each of these factors:
Sabbaticals can also have a positive impact on physician well-being. Physicians are at a higher risk of burnout and mental health issues than the general population. Sabbaticals can help to reduce stress and promote mental health by providing a break from the demands of work.
During a sabbatical, physicians can engage in activities that promote their physical and mental health, such as exercise, meditation, and relaxation techniques. They can also seek out therapy or counseling to address any mental health issues they may be experiencing.
Sabbaticals can also be an effective tool for retaining physicians. Burnout is a leading cause of physician turnover, and sabbaticals can help to address this issue by providing physicians with an opportunity to recharge and renew their commitment to their work.
By taking a sabbatical, physicians can develop a plan for managing their workload and maintaining their well-being in the long term. There is some evidence that this can help to reduce burnout and increase job satisfaction, which can lead to higher retention rates.
While sabbaticals are becoming increasingly common in the medical field, their effects on patient outcomes are not well understood. However, there is some scientific evidence that suggests physician sabbaticals can have positive effects on patient outcomes.
One study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine examined the effect of physician sabbaticals on patient outcomes in a large academic medical center. The study found that patients of physicians who had taken sabbaticals had lower rates of hospitalization and emergency department visits compared to patients of physicians who had not taken sabbaticals. The study also found that patients of sabbatical-taking physicians had higher rates of cancer screening and chronic disease management, indicating better preventive care.
Another study published in the Annals of Family Medicine examined the effect of physician sabbaticals on patient satisfaction in a primary care setting. The study found that patients of physicians who had taken sabbaticals reported higher levels of satisfaction with their care compared to patients of physicians who had not taken sabbaticals.
These findings suggest that physician sabbaticals may have positive effects on patient outcomes, including lower rates of hospitalization and emergency department visits, better preventive care, and higher patient satisfaction. However, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of physician sabbaticals on patient outcomes, and to identify the optimal length and frequency of sabbaticals.
It is important to note that while physician sabbaticals can have positive effects on patient outcomes, they can also create challenges for patients, especially if the physician is the primary caregiver. To minimize the potential negative effects of physician sabbaticals, physicians and their colleagues should work together to ensure continuity of care for their patients during the sabbatical period.
Asking for a sabbatical can be an anxiety-inducing process, but with some careful planning and communication, it can be a relatively straightforward process. Before you approach your employer, it’s important to get a sense of what the work environment will look like in your absence, and to familiarize yourself with the company’s sabbatical policy.
As you approach the point of requesting a sabbatical, it’s likely that you’ve been a valuable and dedicated employee. To ensure that your colleagues can manage your workload while you’re away, it’s a good idea to start asking around and lining up coverage. Ensure that your contract protects you to return to the job – get legal advice if you’re unsure.
When it’s time to make your request, schedule a meeting with your employer to discuss the specifics of your sabbatical. Be clear and direct about your reasons for wanting a break, citing burnout as a major factor. Explain that taking a sabbatical will allow you to recharge and return to work with renewed energy and focus. If you plan to use your time away to pursue continuing education or other professional development opportunities, make sure to highlight the potential benefits for your employer.
Remember that requesting a sabbatical is a common and accepted practice in many workplaces. With a bit of preparation and open communication, you can take the first step towards a healthier and more fulfilling work-life balance.
Overall, we propose that a good structured break from a hectic medical job in the form of a sabbatical can do burned out physicians the world of good. How long, and what the content is depends on the employer and the physician. The scientific evidence suggests that physician sabbaticals can have positive effects on physicians, retention, and patient outcomes, but more research is needed to fully understand the benefits and challenges of sabbaticals in the medical field.
If you’re feeling the heat, maybe consider a pre-burnout sabbatical?
If you have experience of a career break, please let us know in the comments or email us on info at physiciansanonymous.org