Each year, the Medscape Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report highlights the factors shaping physician happiness and wellness. A companion report, Medscape’s 2023 National Physician Burnout and Depression Report, sheds light on the severity of and factors contributing to frustration, sadness, and burnout among our nation’s healthcare workers. Based on the findings of these two reports, we’ve provided five strategies organizations can implement toward improving physician well-being.
Physician happiness remains low post-pandemic
We are in an era still greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, the health and well-being of physicians is often measured relative to pre-pandemic levels. The results of this year’s Medscape surveys indicate physicians have not yet returned to their pre-pandemic health and happiness watermarks.
According to the 2023 report, just 59% of respondents report feeling happy or somewhat happy outside of work. This is compared to 81% who reported being happy or somewhat happy pre-pandemic.
The trend holds for at-work happiness as well, with 75% of respondents reporting they were happy or very happy at work pre-COVID, compared to an alarming 48% in 2023.
One potential factor may be physicians’ inability to work remotely. According to a separate survey, 43% of U.S. employees reported improved work/life balance during and post-pandemic, crediting the option to work remotely.
Physicians continue to report burnout in high numbers
More than half (53%) of respondents to the Physician Burnout and Depression Report said they are burned out, and 23% say they are depressed, compared to pre-pandemic figures of 42% and 15%, respectively.
Nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents reported feeling burned out for 13 months or longer, using words like “pervasive and persistent” to describe their feelings. And 65% shared that burnout has had a negative effect on their personal relationships.
Emergency and internal medicine are among the specialties most impacted by pandemic-era burnout, topping the chart at 65% and 60%, respectively.
Female physicians are also carrying a heavier burnout burden, with 63% of female physicians reporting burnout, relative to 46% of male physicians.
When it comes to burnout by workplace setting, physicians employed in outpatient clinics or office-based, multispecialty group practices reported the highest levels of burnout (57%) while solo practitioners reported the lowest levels of burnout (43%). This is owed in part to greater autonomy afforded through self-employment.
Factors contributing to physician burnout
The top factors contributing to workplace burnout are too many bureaucratic tasks (61%), lack of respect from coworkers (38%), and spending too many hours at work (37%).
Correspondingly, when asked what workplace measures would help most with burnout, the most frequent responses were increased compensation (45%), more manageable work schedule (44%), more support staff (37%), and greater respect from superiors and coworkers (36%).
5 strategies for improving physician well-being
Despite the grim picture these surveys paint of physician happiness, there are ways healthcare organizations can help providers alleviate burnout and promote greater happiness in the workplace. Here are five strategies you can implement:
1. Reduce the administrative burden
The administrative burdens facing physicians add to an already substantial workload and affect the time physicians are able to spend with patients. Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found physicians spend nearly two hours per day beyond work hours completing electronic health record (EHR) documentation. Relieving administrative tasks, where possible, can help physicians devote more time to patient care and feel more fulfilled in their work.
2. Create conditions for better work/life balance
The top ways physicians cope with burnout, according to the Medscape report, are exercise (50%), spending time with family and friends (45%), and rest (41%). It speaks, then, to the critical need for work/life balance to facilitate time for restoration and stress relief. A majority of physicians surveyed (53%) even said they would take less pay for better work/life balance, a figure which reached its peak during the height of the pandemic and outpaces the average U.S. worker.
3. Focus on respect and recognition at work
The Physician Happiness Survey found few physicians (34%) feel appreciated for their work. Formal recognition programs and informal expressions of appreciation can help increase morale and help physicians feel a deeper sense of appreciation for their contributions.
4. Enhance your organization's workplace culture
Fostering meaningful friendships and mentorships in the workplace has the potential to greatly impact physician happiness. In a Physician Happiness Survey conducted by CompHealth and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) in 2021, respondents reported that interpersonal relationships, more than any other aspect of their job, contributed to their happiness. Among physicians who reported having many friends at work, 70% also reported high life satisfaction.
5. Facilitate greater freedom and autonomy
Thirty-one percent of physicians surveyed indicated a lack of control contributed to their feelings of burnout. Granting physicians greater freedom and autonomy in the workplace can help them feel more empowered, self-motivated, and engaged with their work.
Improving physician well-being helps everyone
By understanding the factors that influence physician happiness and well-being, and by fostering a workplace environment that addresses these wants and needs, healthcare facilities can improve physician retention while making its employees happier and more fulfilled in their careers.