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Getting the balance right – avoiding burnout

As a medical student, your primary aim is to learn the theory and practice of medicine but you must also learn how to cope with a physically and emotionally demanding vocation and develop mechanisms to deal with its challenges and avoid burnout.

Factors contributing to burnout include excessive workloads, patient pressures, lack of control, interference from managers, insecurity, reorganization, poor support, perceived threats of complaints or violence, and dysfunctional workplaces (BMA website). It is important to recognize the signs of burnout in yourself, and even in colleagues so that you can seek to address any potentially reversible causes of burnout, and identify strategies to deal with it. This applies equally to your medical student years.

Mechanisms to avoid burnout


Requirements for sleep vary between individuals. If you are tired at the start of the working day, you are at risk of burnout. Ensure you are well rested; 7–8 hours of sleep is suggested. Consider limiting caffeine intake if you have sleep disturbance.

Friends and family

These may be among your greatest allies, and are likely to form a support network that you can access at any time. Non-medics may provide useful emotional support, and those with a medical background may provide practical advice.


These may face similar challenges and provide meaningful advice to challenges (peer groups or mentoring relationships). Your tutors should be the first port of call, as they may have training in helping you to deal with stressors related to your work and life outside of it. Contact them early before a problem becomes entrenched and less easily addressed.


An enjoyable meal can help in alleviating stress. It is essential you establish a balanced diet, and find times to eat and drink during the working day. This can sometimes be challenging: consider taking a flask for an accessible drink and a packed lunch.


Aim to undertake at least four to five sessions of exercise, lasting at least 30 minutes, every week if possible. Indulge in forms of exercise that are accessible to you, and that you tend to enjoy. Playing a sport that you enjoy with others will provide escapism and potentially valuable sources of support. Enjoying the outdoors is important.


Indulge in the hobbies you enjoy: music, drawing, painting, photography, etc. Creative hobbies offer a powerful escapism from medicine, perhaps because medicine is, for the most part, minimally creative, and doctors tend to enjoy creativity.


This is both understated and underestimated and is associated with a falsely negative stigma, especially among the younger generations. In fact, it is common practice to have a ‘shrink’ for successful professionals in the US, who use this sacred personal time to reflect, plan, and work through personal issues in a safe environment, without judgement and criticism, governed by a trained expert. In this way, you can feel heard and maintain firm control over your decisions and reactions without having to act out, make mistakes, and then waste time and energy performing damage control due to destructive consequences.


Taken from the Oxford Handbook for Medical School

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