Oncologists Report Lower Burnout Compared to Other Specialities

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

February 18, 2022

The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on all physicians and have contributed to burnout, but oncologists appear to have fared better than those in some other specialties.

The finding comes from Medscape Oncologist Lifestyle, Happiness & Burnout Report 2022, which is part of a larger report on physician burnout.

Medscape's National Burnout and Depression Report 2022 asked more than 13,000 physicians from 29 specialties to share details about their lives and struggles with burnout and depression this past year.

For burnout, oncologists were in the lower range compared with other specialties. A total of 36% of oncologists reported burnout, as compared to 47% of physicians overall.

Not surprisingly, topping the list were emergency medicine physicians (60%), followed by critical care (56%), and obstetrics & gynecology (53%). At the bottom of the list were public health and preventive medicine specialists (26%).

Burnout among oncologists varied considerably by gender. Half of female oncologists (50%) reported being burned out, as compared to 28% of men.

"There's no question that women have reported far more role strain during the pandemic than men," commented Carol A Bernstein, MD, a psychiatrist at Montefiore Health System and professor and vice chair for faculty development and well-being at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Often women assumed more of the childcare and homeschooling responsibilities in their households. As a result, we know that more women dropped out of the workforce. Plus, past studies indicate that women are more likely to report feelings of burnout than men."

By far, bureaucratic tasks were the main contributor for burnout (72%) for oncologists, and this rate was higher than for physicians overall. This was followed by lack of respect from administrators/employers, colleagues, or staff (45%) and working too many hours (43%).

Interestingly, more than half of oncologists also felt that their personality type contributed to burnout. This was much higher than for physicians overall (34%).

Nearly three quarters (73%) of oncologists said that burnout affected their relationships, which was somewhat higher than among all physicians as a group (68%).

The most common way of coping with burnout was by meditation or other stress reduction techniques (40%). Work-related strategies included changing the work settings (20%), and hiring additional staff (5%). Some reported that they had sold their practice or had put their practice up for sale (2%).

Feeling Happy

Before the pandemic arrived in February 2020, 80% of oncologists reported being "very happy" or "somewhat happy" outside of work, similar to the percentage (81%) of physicians overall.

As the pandemic continued on, the related stress and strain has caused those feeling to shift. Now the percentage that reports being happy has declined to 64%, which is slightly higher than for physicians overall (59%).

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the specific challenges of COVID-19, infectious disease physicians, pulmonologists, rheumatologists, and intensivists currently rank lowest in happiness outside of work.

The survey found that a large majority of the oncologists who responded were in a committed relationship, with 80% reporting being married or living with a partner, similar to physicians overall. In addition, most report that they are in a "very good" or "good" marriage (82%). However, this percentage is lower than the 87% reported last year.

The majority of physicians across all specialties appear to be in happy marriages, and oncologists fall right in the middle (82%). Topping the list for marital happiness are otolaryngologists and allergists (91%), with dermatologists, rheumatologists, and nephrologists right on their heels (all 90%). At the bottom are plastic surgeons (75%), followed by critical care physicians (76%) and emergency medicine, internal medicine, and pulmonary medicine (79%) physicians.

Staying Mentally Healthy

Maintaining work-life balance can be challenging. Among the oncologists responding, 62% said that they would be willing to take a cut in pay to have a better work-life balance or more free time. This is higher than was reported by physicians overall (55%).

To stay happy and maintain their mental health, most oncologists (78%) said that they spend time with family and friends. Also high on the list were doing activities/hobbies that they enjoyed (69%) and exercising (63%). Only 12% reported that they had gone for therapy.

More physicians reported that they were happier before the pandemic, and that was the same for oncologists. Prior to the pandemic, 69% reported being happy, as compared to 58% now.

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