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 last year too.
Nearly half of physicians said they were somewhat or very unhappy at work, compared with 75% 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 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 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 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 Cole.
Physicians also tend to have less compassion for themselves and sacrifice self-care compared to other healthcare workers, she said. "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 Cole.
Physicians also felt less safe at work during the pandemic due to shortages of personal protective equipment, said Sánchez. They have also witnessed or experienced an increase in abusive behavior, violence and threats of violence, she said.