Physician Happiness Outside Work Sees Sharp Drop in a Year: Survey

Marcia Frellick

January 21, 2021

Numbers in a new Medscape survey confirm that COVID-19's drain on physicians has spread beyond their work into their home life.

Before the pandemic, most physicians reported in a survey a year ago that they were somewhat happy (39%) or very happy (43%) outside work. In this latest survey, that total had dropped to 38% who were somewhat happy and 20% who were very happy.

"The feeling has clearly shifted with the duration of the pandemic," authors write in the 2021 Medscape Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report.

More than 12,000 physicians in 29 specialties responded to the survey, which was taken between August 30 and November 5.

Nearly half (47%) of physicians responded that they would sacrifice some of their salary to have better work-life balance. That sentiment was nearly the same as it was in the Medscape National Physician Burnout and Suicide Report 2020.

Among those in this year's survey who said they would trade some of their salary for happiness outside work, about a third said they would take a cut of between $10,000 and $20,000. Another third would trade between $20,000 and $50,000.

Anxiety About the Future

Almost one fourth (24%) of physicians maintain that they are not at all anxious about their futures when they consider COVID-19's effects.

Those results echoed results from the US National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report, a joint project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School, which found that 23% of Americans said they had no fear of a bleaker future despite the pandemic.

In Medscape's latest survey, 9% of physicians said they were very anxious about the future; 67% said they were somewhat or slightly anxious.

Rheumatologists were the specialists most likely to be worried about their futures (14%), followed by allergists/immunologists (13%) and pediatricians, infectious disease specialists, and dermatologists (12%). At the other end of the anxiety spectrum were nephrologists and plastic surgeons (both at 4%).

Most physicians managed to take 1 to 4 weeks of vacation time over the past year. Nearly half (43%) took 3 to 4 weeks; 30% took 1 to 2 weeks; 12% took 5 to 6 weeks; 8% took more than 6 weeks; and 8% took less than 1 week.

Most in Committed Relationships

Most physicians (85%) are married or are in an otherwise committed relationship.

But "a committed relationship is not universal," Michael F. Myers, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, New York City, pointed out in the survey report. "There is a huge cohort of individuals, men and women, who are single and wholly fulfilled both personally and professionally as physicians."

Of those who were married, 85% of physicians described their marriages as good or very good.

"The 85% is terrific," said Myers, who has counseled physician couples. "It hasn't always been that way in medicine."

By specialty, pulmonologists had the happiest marriages (63%), followed by dermatologists, ophthalmologists, and urologists, all at 60%. Conversely, critical care physicians, psychiatrists, and infectious disease physicians were the least happy in their marriages, at between 43% and 47%.

More than two thirds (69%) said they had spiritual or religious beliefs; 24% said they did not; and 7% preferred not to answer.

How Physicians Spend Their Time

Physicians spend far less time online between personal and professional use than the 7 hours a day typical American internet users spend, as reported by We Are Social and Hootsuite. Among physicians, 62% said they spent 1 to 10 hours a week online for personal use, and 31% said they spent 11 to 20 weeks. Most (80%) spent 1 to 10 hours online for work.

About a third of physicians (35%) take time to focus regularly on their own well-being. More male doctors (39%) said they focus on their well-being than did their female counterparts (28%).

Low numbers of physicians were regular drinkers or CBD/cannabis users.

The number reporting they had one or fewer drinks per week was about the same as the number who answered that way last year — just under half. One quarter of physicians reported that they don't drink at all. Of those who drink, the number who have five or more drinks per week went up with age.

Asked about cannabis use, 93% said they are not using it; 4% said they aren't but that they will when it becomes legal in their state; 2% said they use it recreationally; and 1% said they use it for medical purposes.

Hobbies and exercise and spending time with family and friends were listed as ways physicians are working to stay happy and healthy during the pandemic, activities enjoyed by more than 60% of physicians. Seventy-one percent said they exercise two or more times a week.

"The pandemic, in all its harshness, has affected physicians in many ways, one being that life is precious, including their own," Myers said.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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