From the Journals

Roots of physician burnout: It’s the work load



Work load, not personal vulnerability, may be at the root of the current physician burnout crisis, a recent study has concluded.

Dr. Elizabeth Harry, assistant program director of the internal medicine residency program and director of wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Dr. Elizabeth Harry

The cutting-edge research utilized cognitive theory and work load analysis to get at the source of burnout among practitioners. The findings indicate that, although some institutions continue to emphasize personal responsibility of physicians to address the issue, it may be the amount and structure of the work itself that triggers burnout in doctors.

“We evaluated the cognitive load of a clinical workday in a national sample of U.S. physicians and its relationship with burnout and professional satisfaction,” wrote Elizabeth Harry, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora and coauthors. The results were reported in the Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

The researchers investigated whether task load correlated with burnout scores in a large national study of U.S. physicians from October 2017 to March 2018.

As the delivery of health care becomes more complex, physicians are charged with ever-increasing amount of administrative and cognitive tasks. Recent evidence indicates that this growing complexity of work is tied to a greater risk of burnout in physicians, compared with workers in other fields. Cognitive load theory, pioneered by psychologist Jonathan Sweller, identified limitations in working memory that humans depend on to carry out cognitive tasks. Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory used, which can be reduced in the presence of external emotional or physiological stressors. While a potential link between cognitive load and burnout may seem self-evident, the correlation between the cognitive load of physicians and burnout has not been evaluated in a large-scale study until recently.

stressed doctor, burnout wutwhanfoto/Getty Images

Physician task load (PTL) was measured using the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Task Load Index (NASA-TLX), a validated questionnaire frequently used to evaluate the cognitive load of work environments, including health care environments. Four domains (perception of effort and mental, physical, and temporal demands) were used to calculate the total PTL score.

Burnout was evaluated using the Emotional Exhaustion and Depersonalization scales of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a validated tool considered the gold standard for measurement.

The survey sample consisted of physicians of all specialties and was assembled using the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile, an almost complete record of all U.S. physicians independent of AMA membership. All responses were anonymous and participation was voluntary.


Among 30,456 physicians who received the survey, 5,197 (17.1%) responded. In total, 5,276 physicians were included in the analysis.

The median age of respondents was 53 years, and 61.8% self-identified as male. Twenty-four specialties were identified: 23.8% were from a primary care discipline and internal medicine represented the largest respondent group (12.1%).

Almost half of respondents (49.7%) worked in private practice, and 44.8% had been in practice for 21 years or longer.

Overall, 44.0% had at least one symptom of burnout, 38.8% of participants scored in the high range for emotional exhaustion, and 27.4% scored in the high range for depersonalization. The mean score in task load dimension varied by specialty.

The mean PTL score was 260.9 (standard deviation, 71.4). The specialties with the highest PTL score were emergency medicine (369.8), urology (353.7), general surgery subspecialties (343.9), internal medicine subspecialties (342.2), and radiology (341.6).

Aside from specialty, PTL scores also varied by practice setting, gender, age, number of hours worked per week, number of nights on call per week, and years in practice.

The researchers observed a dose response relationship between PTL and risk of burnout. For every 40-point (10%) reduction in PTL, there was 33% lower odds of experiencing burnout (odds ratio, 0.67; 95% confidence interval, 0.65-0.70; P < .0001). Multivariable analyses also indicated that PTL was a significant predictor of burnout, independent of practice setting, specialty, age, gender, and hours worked.


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