In 2011, a group of researchers embarked on a national study to measure burnout among physicians. They found that 45 percent of U.S. doctors met the criteria for burnout, which manifests as emotional exhaustion, a loss of meaning in one’s work, feelings of ineffectiveness, and a tendency to see people as objects rather than fellow humans. Less than a handful of years later, the problem has gotten significantly worse.
In a study published this month in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers report that more than half of U.S. doctors were struggling with professional burnout in 2014. More specifically, during a survey of nearly 7,000 physicians conducted between August and October 2014, more than 54 percent reported at least one symptom of burnout. That’s a 10 percent increase over 2011. Satisfaction with work-life balance among physicians also declined between 2011 and 2014. These statistics can be compared to the general working adult population, which experienced minimal changes in burnout rates or satisfaction with work-life balance during the same time period. In fact, the physician burnout rate went up even though the median number of hours that physicians work per week remained the same.
Study authors Tait Shanafelt, Omar Hasan, Lotte Dyrbye, Christine Sinsky, Daniel Satele, Jeff Sloan and Colin West write:
Burnout and satisfaction with (work-life balance) among US physicians are getting worse. American medicine appears to be at a tipping point with more than half of US physicians experiencing professional burnout. Given the extensive evidence that burnout among physicians has effects on quality of care, patient satisfaction, turnover, and patient safety, these findings have important implications for society at large. There is an urgent need for systematic application of evidence-based interventions addressing the drivers of burnout among physicians.
Among the study’s other findings, nearly 47 percent of U.S. physicians had high emotional exhaustion, more than 34 percent experienced high depersonalization (seeing patients as objects rather than people), and more than 16 percent reported a low sense of personal accomplishment. Only about 41 percent felt their jobs left enough time for their personal and family lives. Fortunately, researchers found minimal difference in the number of physicians reporting depression symptoms between 2011 and 2014, as well as no difference in rates of suicidal ideation.
In 2011, the highest rates of burnout were observed among physicians on the front lines of care, such as those in family medicine, general internal medicine and emergency medicine. As of 2014, researchers found that the prevalence of burnout was higher for all specialty disciplines, with family medicine, general pediatrics, urology, orthopedic surgery, dermatology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, pathology, radiology and general surgery subspecialties all experiencing a more than 10 percent increase in burnout. Satisfaction with work-life balance was also lower for all specialty disciplines in 2014, except among those in obstetrics and gynecology and general surgery.
Overall and when compared to the general working population, the study found that physicians are at higher risk for burnout and are less likely to be satisfied with their work-life balance.
The study’s authors emphasized that addressing the physician burnout problem will require a systemic response, especially as more than 75 percent of doctors are employed by large health care organizations. While physicians can surely take individual steps to cope with burnout factors and build personal resiliency, supportive workplace cultures play a critical role. The study authors write:
Health care organizations should focus on improving the efficiency and support in the practice environment, select and develop leaders with the skills to foster physician engagement, help physicians optimize “career fit,” and create an environment that nurtures community, flexibility, and control, all of which help cultivate meaning in work. Given the high number of hours worked by physicians as well as the unpredictable nature of work hours in some settings (e.g., surgery, hospital-based care), health care organizations must also establish principles that help facilitate work-life integration.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.