In a study of medical students, Jackson et al. (2016) found high rates of alcohol use disorder as well as a strong correlation between burnout and alcohol use disorder. The rate of suicidal ideation in this group was 9.4%, which is consistent with other studies.

Jackson Eric R, Shanafelt Tait D, Hasan Omar, Satele Daniel V, Dyrbye Liselotte N. Burnout and Alcohol Abuse/Dependence Among U.S. Medical Students. Acad Med. March 1, 2016. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000001138.

Correlation is not causation, so it is unclear if burnout causes alcohol use or alcohol use causes burnout or both are caused by some external factor (say depression). Hopefully, future research will tease out the details so we can obtain clear advice regarding interventions to decrease burnout/alcohol use.

My own personal bias is to see alcohol use as a natural consequence of burnout. Certainly, alcohol is commonly used as a means for stress reduction. So, to me, the most likely association is that folks who are more burned out are more likely to drink alcohol to counter negative feelings (depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, doubt, sadness, isolation, etc.).

In any case, given the correlation, it is safe to say that reducing or eliminating alcohol use can be beneficial. If burnout is a problem, altering alcohol use patterns is a reasonable strategy – try exercise instead.

The study also showed that suicidal ideation did NOT correlate with alcohol use, and that suicide IS correlated with burnout. Again causation is unclear, but blaming burnout for suicidality does seem logical. A reasonable assumption is that suicidality should be addressed by addressing burnout and reducing any potential impact of burnout on suicidality.

Although there is no correlation of suicide with alcohol use, the potentiating effect of alcohol use in terms of the lethality of suicidal ideation are well-established. That is, it is essential to address this combination of burnout and alcohol to decrease the potential for completed suicide. Alcohol increases the risk of impulsive acts and reduces the ability to implement cognitive strategies that would decrease suicidal behavior. And the topic also brings up the obvious need to query about suicidal ideation. It’s clear that more research and examination is needed in the area.