The majority—over 86%—of US physicians are moderately to severely stressed or burned out on an average day, according to a survey conducted by VITAL WorkLife (PWS) and Cejka Search (Cejka. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say their stress has increased moderately to dramatically in the past three years, yet only 15 percent say their organizations do anything to help them deal more effectively with their stress or burnout.
The survey of physicians across the US, and across all specialties, was conducted in September 2011 to measure the prevalence, causation and effects of stress and burnout and its impact on physicians’ work and personal lives. Additionally, the survey measured actions that hospitals, clinics and healthcare organizations currently take to support and reduce physicians’ stress and burnout. Our goal for this survey was to better understand the situation in order to help hospitals and clinics develop solutions to address and deal with physician stress and burnout in an effective, long-term manner.
The survey data shows that physician stress and burnout is prevalent and increasing. Until now, little research has been done that delves into why physicians feel stress, the impact it has on their lives and the impact physician stress has on patients.
The implications of escalating stress and burnout range from increased patient safety issues and lower staff morale at all levels, to increased turnover and recruitment challenges as physicians look for better work environments.
The survey’s findings on the effects of physician stress and burnout on physician performance, mental and physical health, and workplace and personal conflict are notable. These are elements that can drive issues with patient safety and risk management.
Physician stress and burnout can also drive turnover, which is highly disruptive and expensive for a medical practice. During these times of physician shortages, recruiting new physicians can be a difficult and costly task. Plus, turnover causes additional stress for the remaining staff.
Thus, it’s important for organizations to recognize physicians’ stress and take action.
Physicians stated that their top four external stress factors are: the economy, healthcare reform, Medicare and Medicaid policies, and unemployed and uninsured patients. The top four work-related stress factors are: administrative demands of the job, long work hours, on-call schedules and concerns about medical malpractice lawsuits.
The result of this cumulative stress is declining job satisfaction, a desire to reduce hours and a desire to retire or leave early, or leave the practice of medicine altogether. Fourteen percent of respondents indicated they had left their practice as a result of stress.
The consequences of stress on respondents’ personal lives include fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability and moodiness, all of which result in physical and mental health issues, apathy and cynicism, and increased risk of medical errors, which impacts patient safety and could lead to medical malpractice lawsuits.
“Physicians are human beings with physical and emotional limitations,” said a survey respondent. “In order to perform better, we need better physical and emotional health and (a better) work environment.”
“This study shows that healthcare organizations are not providing support for their physicians, and the physicians don’t know where to go for help,” said Alan Rosenstein, MD, medical director of PWS. “While administrators can’t control external stress factors such as reimbursement and government policies, there is tremendous opportunity for them to better understand and recognize that physicians are stressed and provide them with services and support so they can have more energy, achieve better work/life balance, and be more resilient in order to effectively manage their stress.”
Nearly one-third of respondents indicated that better work hours/less on-call time and better work/life balance would help to reduce their stress.
Survey respondents indicated they need greater flexibility and control over their working hours to mitigate stress. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said ancillary support would help. This feedback and the growing trend of part-time work schedules for physicians indicate a need for advanced providers such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants who can provide accessible and effective care as physicians scale back their hours in order to pursue better work/life balance.
There are many ways that organizations can help physicians achieve better work/life balance, as well as develop better coping skills and resilience. A physician-specific employee assistance program, coaching and mentoring can help physicians address stress and burnout at the earliest stages, and promote work/life balance through tools, resources and education. Developing efficient physician wellness committees is another way organizations can meet the needs of their physician population, as well workshops and training on topics ranging from stress and anger management, to dealing with workplace conflict, to developing better coping skills and resilience to change.
“I hope this survey will be used in a constructive manner so employers will recognize the huge issue of stress in medicine, as we are losing fine physicians largely because administration is not listening well,” a respondent commented. “Retention is becoming a significant issue.”
Please contact us for more information on how PWS can help, or to learn more about the survey. For more information on effective physician recruitment and retention strategies, please contact Cejka Search. Media inquiries are welcome; click here to contact us.