Physician Burnout and Doctors 3 Energy Banks

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

Physicians have three sources of energy to draw upon in practice and their larger life

In this post you will learn:

  • The differences in these 3 distinct types of energy
  • The symptoms that arise when you are in the negative in any individual account
  • How you fill each one to the brim

These simple principles will supercharge your ability to recognize and prevent your own physician burnout.

In last week's post we debunked the Battery Fallacy of Physician Burnout and showed you the Energy Account model. That post is a foundation to this one. I recommend you review it before continuing here if the Energy Account model is new to you.

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A Quick Review:

Burnout in physicians has nothing to do with batteries being run down. 
Physicians continue to show up and treat patients when their energy is below zero. (Remember, the Energizer Bunny stops when he hits "E". We can go way deeper into the red than that!)

We are trained to ignore our energy levels in med school and residency by the two prime directives of healthcare.
The patient comes first
Never show weakness

Burnout symptoms arise when your energy is persistently below zero. 

Burnout has pervasively negative effects on patient care, team culture and physicians and their families. It is a true statement to say that burnout kills patients and doctors.

Burnout is everywhere all the time. Latest prevalence study shows 62.8% of doctors suffering from at least one symptom of burnout.

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Physician's 3 Energy Accounts

It is easy to think of energy as a monolith, as something like electricity - just a voltage. Energy in humans works differently. It has "flavors". Different types of energy serve different purposes, because we are more than just physical beings, especially when a doctor is practicing medicine.

The first Energy Account/Bank will be familiar:


1) Your PHYSICAL Energy Account


All 3 Energy Accounts share the same simple structure:
A Full Mark <= 
An Empty Mark <= 
A big Red Area below Zero <= 

This account holds the energy required for physical tasks, the energy that allows you to show up bright eyed and bushy tailed and bringing your "A" game to everything you do. This account is full when you are dialed in, switched on, energized, engaged, eager and in charge of all your capabilities. 

The chart above shows a common pattern in doctors. This is a physician dropping into a negative Physical Energy balance over time. Remember, the Energizer Bunny stops and keels over at zero - this is not about batteries. If you are persistently in the negative, burnout symptoms begin to show up.


When you drop into a negative Physical Energy balance, you will experience
Burnout Symptom #1:


We have all been there. Your little voice whispers, "I'm not sure how much longer I can keep going like this." You drag yourself from shift to shift. Even a weekend off may not be enough to get you back to what feels like normal. Exhaustion is the most common symptom of burnout.

How do you fill your Physical Energy Account?

You know the answers to this question. Rest, Exercise, Nutrition, all the basics. And yet, notice how you learned to deny ALL of these during your run through the medical education system.

What we learned was to ignore our physical energy levels, especially if they were below zero, for two reasons. Recall the two prime directives of healthcare

The patient comes first

Never show weakness


In my experience, most physicians first learn how to take good care of their physical energy and their physical body only in their recovery from their first episode of burnout.


2) Your EMOTIONAL Energy Account


This account holds the energy required to be emotionally available for other people.

Even though another piece of our residency programming is, "Don't get close to your patients," we all know that task is impossible. I would doubt the mental health of any physician who does not care for and feel close to at least some of their patients.

When we care for someone as a lightworker, helper and healer we are at the mercy of the human condition. Sometimes you will be filled with happiness and gratitude for the clinical course of your patients. Caring for them and their families will be a joy and a privilege. 

Sometimes your heart will be broken and you will be traumatized by their complications and inevitable death. Even a good death is sad. You expend emotional energy in your recovery. A bad death is something you may never forget.


When you drop into a negative Emotional Energy balance, you will experience
Burnout Symptom #2:


We have all been here too. You are jolted awake by the realization that you are telling jokes or giving dark opinions about the exact same patients you pledged to serve. "Yeah, like she could ever lose weight ..."

Your Emotional Energy Account is tapped dry. You can't be emotionally available, empathetic, forgiving to your patients.

How do you fill your Emotional Account?

In my experience as a physician coach, your Emotional Energy Account is full when you feel you have spent an adequate amount of time with all the people you love.


Make a list of everyone and everything you love. All the people and pets and anything else in your life where when you recall them in your mind's eye, you know that you love them.

Can be people - family members, friends, classmates from the past.
Can be pets.
Can be other things. My family has a grand old Douglas Fir tree at Deception Pass State Park we call the Magic Tree - we would all acknowledge we love that tree. 

Make the list.

Now take a look at all the names on that list and ask yourself this question:
For whom on this list has it been just too long ...
Since I talked them
Visited them
Wrote them a note or an email or an instant message on Facebook or WhatsApp

Circle those names and make it right. 
Make a call, send a note, schedule a cup of coffee, buy the airline ticket for a visit.
Just do it. (it is later than you think)


When you feel like you have spent enough quality time with everyone you love, your Emotional Bank Account will be full. You will have spare emotional energy for your family, your team at work, your patients and their family members. 


3) Your SPIRITUAL Energy Account


In using the word SPIRITUAL here, I am not talking about religion. AND, if you have a religious practice that brings you joy and meaning, please keep it up.

When I use the words spirit/heart/soul with regards to a doctor's practice of medicine, what I mean is your ability to feel a connection with PURPOSE.

When you stood at the Lightworker's Fork in the road and made the decision to go to medical school, it was a declaration to your spirit. I want a path as a helper, a healer, a path with meaning and purpose wound into the fabric of what I do for a living.

When the chaos of your practice day make it impossible to feel you are making a difference or serving a purpose, you will experience
Burnout Symptom #3:

"What's the use?"

Christina Maslach called this symptom "lack of efficacy". Your little voice puts you on notice when it says, "What's the use, I am not really making a difference or serving a purpose here?"

This is the burnout symptom that breaks my heart.

When the stress of your practice is so high, it severs your connection with purpose like a hot knife through butter - and you can't step out of your programming to walk away - a doctor's spirit can be broken ... permanently. And we lose another Lightworker in a world where there is a massive shortage.

How do you fill your Spiritual Bank Account? 

As a physician coach, I have interviewed hundreds of physicians to find the answer to this question. What we discovered together is a true burnout prevention super power, I will show you in full detail in the next blog post. 

It's all about what you do when a patient says, "Thank you". 

If you take that "thank you" full in the chest and suck it all up, you will receive an energy infusion into all three accounts at once. It is an energy boost that can last weeks. Most doctors miss the opportunity completely. 


In the final installment of this 3-part series on physician energy management,

let me teach you exactly what to do and say with your patients to fill your Spiritual Bank Account.

This practice-saving energy infusion hinges on what you do when a patient or family member says the magic words, "Thank You".





What is your favorite habit to refill your Physical Energy Account?
When you connected with one of the people on your it's-been-too-long list, how did that feel?
When a patient or family member says Thank You now, how do you respond?



Tags: stop physician burnout