Across all fields of employment, workers experience job burnout-a state of mental or emotional exhaustion that can cause apathy and poor job performance. Alarmingly, a new study concludes that doctors are not immune from burnout. In fact, nearly half of all physicians in the United States report at least one symptom of burnout. Given that this emotional toll can translate into depressed behavior, apathy and a risk for medical negligence, this study is critical to the issue of patient safety.

The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, was based on the results of a survey of 7,288 physicians. The survey, conducted by the Mayo Clinic and the American Medical Association, asked physicians to complete the Maslach Burnout Inventory-the leading indicator for measuring burnout. The questions in the inventory included:

  • Whether the physicians have experienced feelings of burnout or emotional exhaustion
  • Whether the physicians have experienced a loss of enthusiasm, depersonalization or cynicism in their work
  • Whether the physicians have felt a low sense of personal accomplishment related to their jobs

The survey results showed that the rates of burnout were high among the physicians. Overall, 45.8 percent of the physicians experienced at least one symptom of burnout. When the results were broken down by symptom, 37.9 percent had high emotional exhaustion, 29.4 percent experienced depersonalization and 12.4 percent had a low sense of personal accomplishment.

The survey also concluded that the physician’s field of specialty affects the likelihood of developing burnout symptoms. Nearly 60 percent of physicians who specialize in emergency medicine, internal medicine and family medicine exhibit high levels of burnout. On the other hand, physicians in the fields of pediatrics, dermatology, pathology and preventive medicine are the least likely to be burned out.

Nature of Work Is a Factor

In addition to the often stressful and depressing nature of work that physicians do, the survey theorized that there are two other reasons for the high levels of burnout: long hours and lack of work-life balance. The survey found that physicians, on average, work 10 more hours per week (50 hours per week) than the general population.

Also, it was found that 37.9 percent of physicians regularly work weeks of 60 hours or more compared with only 10.6 percent of the general population. It was also discovered that the long hours take their toll on physician happiness-40 percent of physicians said that they were dissatisfied with their work-life balance, as opposed to 23.1 percent of the general public.

Burnout: An Unacceptable Danger to Patients

Doctors who are burned out run the risk of developing personal problems such as alcoholism, drug dependency or relationship problems. Besides the personal aspect of burnout, patient care is also impacted. Burned out physicians are more likely to make medical or communication errors that can result in their patient’s injury or death.

Although job burnout is not malicious or intentional, the law does not allow excuses for substandard medical care, for any reason, and holds those responsible for medical errors accountable for their actions. If you or a loved one has been injured while in the care of a physician, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to protect your rights to compensation.