5 Reasons Why Doctors Are Unhappy

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Every year, Medscape releases a physician happiness report showing how happy (or unhappy) physicians are. In 2023, the recent Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report found over a third, 36%, of physicians were very or somewhat unhappy at work. Before the pandemic, this number was only 14%.

Physician unhappiness outside of work is also up from pre-pandemic numbers, leaping from 8% before the pandemic to 26% today.

Medscape Doctor Happiness Before and After the Pandemic chart

Image: 2023 Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report

In this post, we’ll dig into the top reasons doctors are unhappy and how physicians can live happier, more fulfilling lives.

 

1 | Purpose and Meaning

Doctors are unhappy due to a growing lack of purpose and meaning in their work and personal lives.

This is occurring more often for two reasons. First, many physicians spend as much as two-thirds of their day charting to meet hospital and insurance company requirements.

Unsurprisingly, Medscape reports the #1 reason physicians said they were burnt out was “too many bureaucratic tasks.” The second reason for physician burnout was “too many hours at work.”

While saving lives or making a major breakthrough in research is the dream, the day-to-day reality of being a doctor can often feel less fulfilling. The massive workload, much of which is paperwork, coupled with the long hours can cause even the most resilient physician to lose sight of why they chose this path.

Additionally, doctors continue to lack the time they need to find purpose and meaning in their personal lives. With so many hours spent on the job, there’s only so much time left over to focus on personal hobbies and interests, practice mindfulness, exercise, and build quality relationships.

 

2 | Quality Relationships

Having no or very few strong relationships also negatively impacts physician happiness.

Good social relationships are the most consistent predictor of a happy life. Research continues to suggest that social connections are the cornerstone of happiness. In addition to contributing to happiness, strong relationships are linked with improved health and longevity.

A decades-long Harvard study found that positive relationships were the top contributing factor to living a happy, healthy, and long life.

As mentioned above, Medscape reports that the #2 reason for physician burnout is “too many hours at work.” Physicians, especially those in highly competitive and demanding specialties, are notorious for neglecting not only themselves but also their social relationships outside of work.

Medscape lists some of the happiest specialties as rheumatology, ENT, and endocrinology, which are all known for their relatively better quality of life. These specialties have more flexibility and offer physicians more time to spend doing what they love with the people they love.

However, the average number of hours worked is not the only factor at play here since other specialties, such as dermatology and ophthalmology, typically work fewer hours yet are still not listed amongst the happiest specialties.

As important as relationships are outside of work, they matter on the job as well. A 2022 study found that patient connection and visible impact are common traits among happy physicians. Strong doctor-patient relationships improve the job satisfaction of doctors as well as the health outcomes of patients.

Good relationships with their colleagues also boosts physician happiness, as connection and belonging are universal human needs, and doctors are humans too.

Making time to connect with colleagues, patients, friends, and family leads to a strong sense of community, connection, and belonging, all of which are essential to a happy and fulfilling life and career.

 

3 | Finances & Debt

Jar of money with SAVE label - Why are doctors broke

One of the most popular and conflicting statements is “money can’t buy happiness.” As it turns out, money is a factor that determines happiness across the world and for medical professionals.

A World Happiness Report metric is GDP per capita, which essentially considers how much money a country is making. Wealthier countries, in general, are happier countries, and the same goes for individuals.

Back in 2010, researchers at Princeton stated that happiness plateaus at $75,000 a year.

However, this isn’t entirely accurate. While the slope correlating money and happiness decreases after $75,000, it does not flatten, meaning there is still a positive correlation between money and happiness.

Making $200,000 makes you happier than making $100,000, but not to nearly the same extent as doubling your $40,000 a year income. Additionally, the $75,000 number that gets tossed around in many articles about happiness does not account for the years of inflation since the original study.

There are three main reasons physicians are unhappy when it comes to their finances.

Consistently Decreasing Salaries

Inflation continues to negatively impact physician salaries, which consistently have not kept up. Physician compensation did rise by 14% between 2017 to 2022 to around $391,000 from $343,000. But accounting for inflation, the real average compensation in 2022 was less than $325,000, a nearly $20,000 decrease in purchasing power.

Lingering Debt

On average, doctors leave medical school with over $250,000 of debt, a number that continues to rise while salaries decline. This can take years to pay off, especially for physicians with poor spending habits.

Poor Spending Habits 

Lastly, a lack of financial education often leads to doctors having poor spending habits, making it difficult for them to get out of debt.

Far too many residents and young doctors begin spending like they’re making the big bucks when they should be focused on lowering their debt as soon as possible. They spend to their limits since they’ve lived for so many years as a poor student. They start living a fancy lifestyle right away rather than focusing on paying down their debt and making smart investments.

 

4 | Healthy Habits

You might think a career dedicated to understanding how the body works and what it needs to stay healthy would mean physicians take care of their own health. Sadly, this is not always the case.

According to the 2023 Medscape Physician Happiness Report, 43% of physicians admitted they only sometimes look after their own health and wellness, and 17% admitted they rarely or never look after their own health.

Medscape Graph - Do Doctors Look After Their Own Health

Image: 2023 Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report

If you’ve ever experienced a health scare or chronic illness, you know just how much health is directly connected to your happiness. So why do so many physicians neglect their health when they are so familiar with the negative impacts?

It all goes back to the rising impact of physician burnout and the stigma in healthcare around overworking yourself in order to succeed. This starts early on during premed, as getting into medical school is extremely competitive. And the pressure doesn’t let up once you’re in medical school and residency—it intensifies.

Students continually neglect their health, and these bad habits continue into their medical careers with a lack of sleep, nutrition, and physical activity.

In 2022, Medscape found that 47% of doctors were suffering from burnout, which was up from 42% the previous year. As mentioned above, a main contributing factor to physician burnout is too many hours at work, so it’s not surprising that doctors struggle to prioritize time for their own mental and physical health.

Medical students, residents, and practicing physicians are notorious for neglecting their sleep, and research shows that shorter sleep duration is associated with lower happiness.

Getting adequate, quality sleep leads to an overall healthier life. Learn How to Handle (and Prevent) Sleep Deprivation.  

 

5 | Physical Activity

According to Medscape’s happiness report, 10% of doctors reported they never exercise, and 20% said they only manage to exercise once a week.

Physicians know the impact physical activity has on health, yet a third are neglecting exercise, and another 36% only exercise two to three times a week.

Exercise is a direct determinant of physician happiness and has been linked to decreased depression and anxiety. It’s so tightly connected to physical health that going from low fitness to below average equates to a 50% reduction in mortality over a decade. Going from low to above average fitness is a 60% to 70% reduction in mortality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 1.25 hours of high intensity physical activity a week.

While you may not feel happy in the moment when you’re exercising, the numerous benefits lead to a healthier and happier life.

The best way to exercise regularly is to build it into your daily habits and hobbies. For example, you could bike to and from work or commit to always taking the stairs. If there’s a show you never miss, roll out your yoga mat and stretch instead of just sitting on the couch, and instead of turning to your phone during your study breaks, do planks, pushups, or yoga.

Finding time for exercise is all about time management and priorities. If you think you’re too busy to exercise, check out How to Exercise with a Busy Schedule

 

The Importance of Balance and Wellness

Physician burnout and unhappiness have reached epidemic levels. While the causes of this are largely systemic, it is imperative that premeds and medical students cultivate healthy habits around sleep, exercise, nutrition, finances, and relationship building now so that they are protected further down the road.

The path to becoming a professional physician is fraught with challenges, and students who do not prioritize healthy habits as soon as possible risk burnout, failing medical school, or more dire health consequences.

At Med School Insiders, we’re passionate about helping students take a holistic approach to their education, lifestyle, and happiness. We believe exercise, quality sleep, healthy eating, strong relationships, and fulfilling hobbies leads to improved performance in your school and work life. When you take care of yourself, you perform better, and you’re also better equipped to take care of others.

That’s why we’re awarding $3000 of Med School Insiders services to 2 students who qualify for our new Balance & Wellness Scholarship. Share your experiences balancing your health, passions, and happiness for your chance to win.

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