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An Evidence-Based Approach to Mental Health and Burnout in Optometry

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7 min read

Read on about the impact of burnout on optometrists and four key steps for managing mental health challenges as an eyecare practitioner.

An Evidence-Based Approach to Mental Health and Burnout in Optometry
Physician burnout is defined by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment. It’s no surprise that burnout has significantly impacted healthcare providers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even the Surgeon General has initiated a call to action to raise awareness of how the public health crises of loneliness and isolation can “increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges.”1
According to a recent publication in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, throughout the pandemic, the perception of “overload on healthcare providers” has been reported to be as high as 37.1% among physicians and 47.4% for other clinical staff.2
Considering this, there has recently been a shift and prioritization on understanding mental health and how it impacts the eyecare profession.

The impact of burnout on optometry

At the 2023 Academy annual meeting, “Mental Health in Optometry” was the key focus of the plenary session. In an effort to understand the direct effect of burnout on our profession, Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, APRN-CNP, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, reviewed the data collected from a wellness survey that measured the responses of fellows of the American Academy of Optometry (AAO).3
The data was also compared to trends among dentists and pharmacists. Interestingly, AAO fellows had lower rates of depression (4%), anxiety (9%), and stress (3%) than dentists and pharmacists. Additionally, AAO fellows had higher rates of burnout (32%) than dentists (13%) but lower rates than pharmacists (64%).
In terms of lifestyle habits, AAO fellows comparatively outperformed in some areas while underperforming in others. Of note, 58% of AAO fellows reported ≥7 hours of sleep—compared to dentists (23%) and pharmacists (48%).
Further, 38% of AAO fellows exercised more than 150 minutes per week (versus dentists 31% and pharmacists 26%); however, only 11% consumed ≥5 servings of fruits and vegetables. Lastly, AAO fellows reported heavier alcohol consumption (20%) than pharmacists (14%) but less consumption than dentists (22%).

Why healthy lifestyle habits matter to eyecare practitioners

The lifestyle habits listed below play a significant role in individual health, according to Dr. Melnyk, and can decrease the risk of diabetes (66%), heart disease (45%), back pain (45%), depression (93%), and stress (74%).
Specific lifestyle habits that can reduce the risk of systemic diseases include:3
  • Physical activity (defined as 30 minutes per session, 5 days per week)
  • Healthy eating (defined as five servings of fruits and vegetables per day)
  • Refraining from smoking
  • Consuming alcohol in moderation (defined as no more than 1 drink per day)
Burnout also influences physicians’ retention and the intent to leave (ITL) their current positions—directly impacting inner professional turnover. According to Future Forum’s 2023 Quarterly Report on workplace culture, employees suffering from burnout are 3.4 times more likely to look for a new job in the upcoming year.4

4 steps for managing burnout and improving mental health

Nevertheless, new optometrists don’t need to question whether or not they’ll become another statistic. Here are four additional strategies eyecare practitioners can utilize to better manage burnout and improve mental health

1. Seek a work environment with open communication.

While it may be difficult to open up to employers, being able to voice your concerns, challenges, and successes yields personal benefits.
Employees in environments that they perceive as being “transparent” have 8.8 times higher job satisfaction than those who work for companies that seem to “lack transparency.”4

2. Balance your workload by delegating and reformulating within current bounds.

As a new optometrist, there’s often an urge to “do it all” or “go above and beyond” in the workplace. While a strong work ethic is commendable, it doesn’t always prove to be as sustainable as asking for help and delegating tasks. Try to reflect and determine which tasks can be performed by support staff.
Initially, I performed my own prior authorizations (PAs) as there were benefits, such as learning the requirements for local insurance coverage and being more informed about which patients were obtaining medications. However, as my dry eye practice grew, it was a task I had to pass on to a trusted technician.

3. Take time to disconnect and decompress.

Taking time away from work to wind down and relax helps to recharge your social, emotional, and mental energy. This could look like small midday tasks, such as taking a lunch away from the office, going for a midday walk, taking a phone call, or picking up a coffee.
It’s also important to set and keep boundaries. Many doctors and healthcare staff participate in “shadow work,” defined as work that is necessary to maintain organization but not necessarily seen or recognized by decision-makers or owners.5
In a healthcare setting, “shadow work” can refer to writing letters of correspondence, refilling prescriptions, interpreting test results outside of patient care, and introducing new protocols or practice behaviors with staff.
While some doctors have remote “at-home access,” allowing them to chart from home, choosing to reduce work outside of work (WOW) is an effective strategy when it comes to managing burnout. I’ve personally set a boundary to minimize charting from home to better manage my work and life balance.

4. Seek out resources and support for long-term success.

Just like a past infection or broken bone, you CAN recover from burnout. Having support and long-term management plans will assist your goals of prioritizing mental health in the long run.
Seeking resources like mental health services through insurance or human resources (HR) benefits can make these more achievable and sustainable. It’s important to know that if you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you may qualify for job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).6 More information on the FMLA can be found here.

Final points

It’s important to understand that—similar to other professions—burnout impacts the field of optometry. Coping with burnout and managing your mental health is an ongoing process that may require various concurrent strategies and systems of support.
With an increased desire to better understand how mental health and burnout impact the eyecare profession, now is a great time to seek out resources and develop sustainable mental health practices.
  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States. US Department of Health and Human Services. Published May 3, 2023.
  2. Rotenstein LS, Brown R, Sinsky C, Linzer M. The Association of Work Overload with Burnout and Intent to Leave the Job Across the Healthcare Workforce During COVID-19. J Gen Intern Med. 2023;38(8):1920–1927.
  3. Melnyk B. Plenary Session: Mental Health in Optometry. Presented at the American Academy of Optometry 2023 Convention; October 11-14, 2023; New Orleans, LA.
  4. Future Forum Pulse Winter Report 2022-2023. Amid Spiking Burnout, Workplace Flexibility Fuels Company Culture and Productivity. Future Forum. Published February 2023.
  5. Privitera MR. Promoting Clinician Well-Being and Patient Safety Using Human Factors Science: Reducing Unnecessary Occupational Stress. Health. 2022;14(12):1334-1356. doi: 10.4236/health.2022.1412095
  6. US Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. Fact Sheet #280: Mental Health Conditions and the FMLA. US Department of Labor. Published May 2022.
Emilie Seitz, OD, FAAO
About Emilie Seitz, OD, FAAO

Dr. Emilie Seitz is a North Coast native from Cleveland, Ohio. She studied Biology at The Ohio State University. Following her undergraduate studies, Dr. Seitz obtained her doctorate degree in 2020 from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University in Philadelphia, PA.

She completed her optometry rotations in 4 different states: Ohio (Cleveland Eye Clinic), Pennsylvania (Nittany Eye Associates), Kentucky (Danville Eye Center), and North Carolina (South Charlotte Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center). After graduation, Dr. Seitz completed her residency in ocular disease at the WG (Bill) Hefner VAMC in Salisbury, NC, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emilie Seitz, OD, FAAO
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