This Scientific Short is part of AACC Academy's Career Development Series.

Burnout is a distinct syndrome that is characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism/depersonalization and reduced effectiveness/low sense of personal accomplishment.(1) It is measured by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, developed by Maslach and Jackson, in 1981. The review by Shanafelt and Noseworthy is helpful in recognizing burnout in oneself and in others.(1) Most authors acknowledge that burnout can be alleviated by addressing both institutional and personal factors.

Though there are very few studies specific to scientists, it is likely that burnout rates among clinical chemists are similar to pathologists, since the stressors are similar. In recent Medscape surveys of pathologists, burnout rates in pathologists 35 years of age or younger were equal to the rate of burnout among emergency medicine physicians, who have some of the highest rates of burnout among specialties, and women reported higher burnout rates for almost all medical specialties(2).

Signs that one is burning out can include fatigue that does not dissipate with rest, trouble sleeping, decreased attention and appetite, more frequent illnesses, and loss of joy in one’s work. Increased cynicism and feelings of hopelessness can also indicate possible burnout. Some have suggested that making a list of what makes you happy (and what drains you) can be helpful in understanding your stressors.

The rapid changes occurring in laboratory medicine undoubtedly contribute, as well as a host of other stressors like debt, work/life imbalance, and innate perfectionism in those drawn to our field. Highly driven high achievers are particularly at risk.

For each of us, there is a 10-20-70 balance: 70% of what ends up on our desk is “must-do” work and difficult to delegate or ignore; 10% is discretionary effort like committees and volunteer work where we can say no, but commonly do not; and 20% is what truly brings us joy. In our practice, this is captured in the question, “What is your area of special interest?” In other words, what is it that genuinely excites and motivates you? If it is less than 20% of your overall effort, then you are at risk for burnout.

Encourage needed changes in your department, if feasible. Work together to discover the root causes of major stresses in your worksite. Learn to politely say no by saying, “I value your project and my plate is full.” Delegate and decompress. If you have made a good effort and are pressing yourself to do more, tell yourself, “I have given my full measure and effort.”

It is important to be good to yourself. Self-care is not selfish. We need to be able to deal with ambiguity. Expect setbacks and tell yourself that you have been through worse. Address the situation factually, not as you wish it to be. Finally, support colleagues as well as yourself. Adopt habits of gratitude, grit and humor. Reframe what you are telling yourself and give yourself a break from frustrating situations.

In the end, we need to be able to let the past go and to learn to recognize what we can control and what we can’t.


  1. T.D. Shanafelt, J.H. Noseworthy. Executive leadership and physician well-being: nine organizational strategies to promote engagement and reduce burnout, Mayo Clin Proc, 92 (2017), pp. 129-146, accessed at
  2. Peckham, C. Physician Burnout: It Just Keeps Getting Worse (Jan 2015), accessed at Medscape at
  3. Hernandez, JS. The Human Cost of Burnout and Errors in the Laboratory, Clinical Laboratory News, April 1, 2018, accessed at
  4. Hernandez, JS and Wu, RI. Burnout in Pathology: suggestions for individual and systemwide solutions, Journal of American Society of Cytopathology, Volume 7, Issue 3, May-June 2018, accessed at