What is Work-Life Balance Worth to Physicians?


For the unfamiliar, physician burnout is a long-term stress reaction experienced by physicians (as well as others working in the medical industry), that’s typically marked by depersonalization, mental and emotional exhaustion, as well as a lack of sense of personal accomplishment. It’s a problem that’s plagued healthcare workers for decades.

A 2020 survey of more than 15,000 physicians conducted by Medscape.org looked at Physician burnout in the United States. This survey examined cross-generational burnout rates, how physicians coped, the influence that technology has on burnout, as well as how much money physicians are actually willing to give up to reduce their degree of burnout – even marginally.

Physician Burnout Across Generations

The Medscape.org survey discovered that while average burnout rates have declined slightly over the years, the problem is still worse among mid-career doctors than among younger or older physicians.

Here’s a quick breakdown of each generation of physician, and the average burnout rate within that generation:

Based on these numbers, it’s easy to see that gen-x doctors experience higher burnout rates than millennial or baby boomer doctors, by about 23%.

What Leads to Physician Burnout?

Working in any medical field can lead to burnout; working days are packed, there’s a gruelingly demanding pace to maintain, and high physical and emotional stress to cope with.

The top reason that survey respondents (55%) in all three generations gave, however, was that there were too many administrative and/or bureaucratic tasks to complete, such as charting and paperwork.

33% of respondents in all three generations said that they believed spending too many hours at work was the secondary leading cause of burnout, which could be alleviated by reducing the amount of paperwork and charting physicians are required to complete.

While emerging technologies do aim to address the issue of physician burnout, many doctors cite electronic health records (EHRs) as another significant reason for dissatisfaction and burnout across each generation, though it’s a larger pain-point for baby boomer physicians than it is for other generations of physicians.

How Do Doctors Cope When Burned Out?

It’s no surprise that physician burnout can lead to physicians developing depression, although reports of burnout-related depression in physicians are surprisingly consistent.

Alarmingly, 23% of male respondents and 22% of female respondents reported having suicidal thoughts, but thankfully did not attempt suicide. However, about 1% of physicians have attempted suicide, while an estimated 300 – 400 physicians commit suicide each year.

Working in such a high-stress industry, physicians (and other medical workers) all need to have a way to cope with their stress or burnout. Millennial doctors said that they were most likely to sleep in order to deal with their symptoms, gen-x doctors said they typically turn to exercise, and baby boomer doctors said they tend to prefer to isolate themselves from others.

How is Patient Care Affected?

Understandably, nearly 40% of all respondent physicians who reported depression said it can lead them to become easily exasperated with patients, while 16% (from all age groups) admitted that depression can cause them to make errors that they wouldn’t otherwise make.

The Price of Better Balance for Work & Life

A staggering 50% of respondents to the Medscape survey reported that they would be willing to take a reduction in salary of up to $20,000 annually, in exchange for working fewer hours and achieving a (marginally) better work-life balance.

This sentiment was consistent across each generation of physicians, with 52% of millennials, 48% of gen-xers, and 49% of baby boomers saying that they would be willing to take a salary cut in exchange for more personal time. This is especially noteworthy, since millennials represent the largest number of physicians willing to take a cut in salary while (typically) earning less than their peers.

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