Physician Burnout: It Just Keeps Getting Worse

Carol Peckham


January 26, 2015

In This Article

Other Lifestyle Factors and Burnout


According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 30% of Americans say that religion is largely out of date, a trend that has increased steadily since the 1950s, when only 7% held this view.[21] In our Medscape poll, instead of asking for specific religious affiliations, we wanted to know whether physicians have a spiritual belief, regardless of active participation. There were no real differences in responses from the burned-out and non–burned-out groups, but physicians on the whole are less religious/spiritual than the general population. When asked whether they have any religious or spiritual belief, about three quarters of all physicians reported that they do (77% of non–burned-out physicians and 75% of those burned out). However, only about 62% of all non–burned-out physicians and 57% of burned-out physicians attend services. Some studies have reported that spirituality may be protective against burnout,[22,23,24] but the Medscape report found no association.


Instead of asking Medscape physicians whether they are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, the survey focused on whether members considered themselves liberal or conservative in fiscal and social areas. Without clear definitions of these terms, the responses are very subjective; the aim was to get a sense of political biases rather than voting habits. Fifty-seven percent of physicians claim to be socially liberal, and about two thirds are fiscally conservative, regardless of burnout status. Political views have not changed in the 2 years since the previous report. Of interest, a 2007 study of medical students found them much more likely to be liberal than conservative and also more liberal than other American young adults.[25] A 2013 Gallup poll identified 41% of the general US population as economically conservative and 30% as socially liberal, both lower percentages than those reported by physicians.[26]


Although studies suggest that taking time off reduces stress, the United States is one of only 13 countries in the world that do not mandate vacation time. About a quarter of US workers do not have paid time off, with about half in the bottom fourth of earners and only about 10% of those in the top quarter going without paid vacations.[27] Physicians do better than other workers in taking time off, but burnout appears to affect vacation negatively. In the Medscape survey, 70% of non–burned-out physicians reported taking off more than 2 weeks a year compared with 59% of those who are burned out.

Healthy Habits

Physicians who have a healthy lifestyle are more likely to preach what they practice to their patients.[28] But do most practice good habits?

General health. In the 2015 Medscape report, physicians were asked to rate their physical health on a scale from "poor" to "excellent." The great majority rated their own health as "good" to "very good/excellent." However, to be expected, those who were burned out were less confident about their health, with 54% of burned-out physicians reporting very good to excellent health compared with 70% of their non–burned-out colleagues.

Weight. According to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity in 2011-2012 was about 35%, a rate that has basically remained unchanged since 2003.[29] A 2013 JAMA Internal Medicine study of lifestyle behaviors in healthcare workers showed little differences in overweight or obesity between them and their patients.[30] Physicians who reported their body mass index (BMI) in the Medscape survey do better than the general public, but a significant number are overweight or obese. Among the burned-out group, 46% confessed to being overweight to obese (36% and 10%, respectively) compared with 39% of those who were not burned out (33% overweight, 6% obese). These numbers have not budged since the 2013 report.

Exercise. The most recent CDC statistics report that less than half (48%) of all adults meet the age-appropriate 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines[31,32] The 2013 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that healthcare workers are better at some behaviors than their patients, notably in exercising within the previous 30 days.[30] Our report supported this conclusion, with 68% of non–burned-out physicians and 56% of burned-out physicians reporting exercising at least twice a week. Twelve percent of physicians who were not burned out and 17% of those who were avoided exercise altogether, which were higher rates in both groups than those reported in 2013 (5% of non–burned-out and 7% of burned-out physicians, respectively).

Marital Status

Social support is an important component for preventing burnout,[33] and although conflicting priorities between work and home contribute to burnout,[34,35] some evidence suggests that marriage may help reduce the risk.[36] In the Medscape survey, over half (53%) of physicians without partners experience burnout. When looking at specific living status, the highest rates of burnout (57%) were among those who were never married and living alone. Of interest, widows and widowers had the lowest burnout rates (37%), followed by physicians who were in a first marriage (45%) or remarried (44%).


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