Feature

Doctors’ happiness has not rebounded as pandemic drags on


 

Doctors do not appear to be bouncing back from the pandemic’s early days – their happiness at and away from work continues to be significantly lower than before the pandemic. Physicians reported similar levels of unhappiness in 2022 too.

Fewer than half of physicians said they were currently somewhat or very happy at work, compared with 75% of physicians who said they were somewhat or very happy at work in a previous survey conducted before the pandemic, the new Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2023 shows.*

“I am not surprised that we’re less happy now,” said Amaryllis Sánchez, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician and a certified physician coach.

“I speak to physicians around the country and I hear that their workplaces are understaffed, they’re overworked and they don’t feel safe. Although we’re in a different phase of the pandemic, doctors feel that the ground beneath them is still shaky,” said Dr. Sánchez, the author of “Recapturing Joy in Medicine.

Most doctors are seeing more patients than they can handle and are expected to do that consistently. “When you no longer have the capacity to give of yourself, that becomes a nearly impossible task,” said Dr. Sánchez.

Also, physicians in understaffed workplaces often must take on additional work such as administrative or nursing duties, said Katie Cole, DO, a board-certified psychiatrist and a physician coach.

While health systems are aware that physicians need time to rest and recharge, staffing shortages prevent doctors from taking time off because they can’t find coverage, said Dr. Cole.

“While we know that it’s important for physicians to take vacations, more than one-third of doctors still take 2 weeks or less of vacation annually,” said Dr. Cole.

Physicians also tend to have less compassion for themselves and sacrifice self-care compared to other health care workers. “When a patient dies, nurses get together, debrief, and hug each other, whereas doctors have another patient to see. The culture of medicine doesn’t support self-compassion for physicians,” said Dr. Cole.

Physicians also felt less safe at work during the pandemic because of to shortages of personal protective equipment, said Dr. Sánchez. They have also witnessed or experienced an increase in abusive behavior, violence and threats of violence.

Physicians’ personal life suffers

Doctors maintain their mental health primarily by spending time with family members and friends, according to 2022’s Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report. Yet half of doctors reported in a survey by the Physicians Foundation that they withdrew from family, friends or coworkers in 2022, said Dr. Sánchez.

“When you exceed your mental, emotional, and physical capacity at work, you have no reserve left for your personal life,” said Dr. Cole.

That may explain why only 58% of doctors reported feeling somewhat or very happy outside of work, compared with 84% who felt that way before the pandemic.

More women doctors said they deal with stronger feelings of conflict in trying to balance parenting responsibilities with a highly demanding job. Nearly one in two women physician-parents reported feeling very conflicted at work, compared with about one in four male physician-parents.

When physicians go home, they may be emotionally drained and tired mentally from making a lot of decisions at work, said Dr. Cole.

“As a woman, if you have children and a husband and you’re responsible for dinner, picking up the kids at daycare or helping them with homework, and making all these decisions when you get home, it’s overwhelming,” said Dr. Cole.

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