The 5 biggest risk factors for physician burnout, according to our 13,371-physician survey

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Oct. 18, 2019.

By Jackie Kimmell, Senior Analyst

In a 2017 message to their "fellow health care CEOs," 10 prominent health system CEOs—including those from Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins Medicine—said that "burnout among physicians is a national health crisis," and "addressing it a matter of absolute urgency."

Learn how to drive engagement across physicians’ first 90 days and beyond

Yet, each year it seems the number of physicians who report feeling burned out rises. Currently, more than half of U.S. physicians report at least one symptom of burnout, as measured by three interrelated components: exhaustion, inefficacy, and cynicism.

The Advisory Board's Survey Solutions team recently surveyed over 13,371 employed, affiliated, and independent physicians around the country and found similar results: 15.2% of respondents were considered at high-risk of burnout, while 35.3% were moderate-risk and 49.4% were low-risk. Unsurprisingly, physicians at high risk for burnout were more likely to report plans to leave their job than those with a low risk.

So how can health leaders respond? The results from this survey may provide a good starting point.

The clear survey takeaway: Physicians who felt more engaged with their organization were less likely to report feeling burned out. Even more so, there were five key engagement metrics which were highly correlated with burnout.

This is good news for leaders, who can kill two birds with one stone, since improving their physician engagement also should reduce their physicians' risk of burnout. Here are the five engagement metrics, and resources to help you move the dial on addressing them.

The 5 engagement factors most tied to burnout

The five engagement factors that were negatively correlated with burnout. This meant that those who responded affirmatively to the follow statements were significantly less likely to score highly on the Burnout Index. These included:

  • The organization supports my desired work-life balance (correlation of -.56)
  • The organization is open and responsive to my input (correlation of -.42)
  • I have the right amount of autonomy in managing my individual practice (correlation of -.41)
  • The actions of the executive team reflect the goals and priorities of participating clinicians (correlation of -.41)
  • The organization recognizes clinicians for excellent work (correlation of -.40)

While this correlation doesn't imply causation, these findings indicate that feeling engaged with the organization might buffer against some of the emotional symptoms of burnout. This is reflective of other Advisory Board and external research which has found that physicians who feel highly engaged—namely that their organization listens to them, communicates effectively with them, and takes actions in line with their priorities—are happier with their work.

3 areas to improve engagement

But how do you improve engagement? Don't worry, Advisory Board research teams have spoken with hundreds of physicians and executives across the country, and have come up many best practices to help leaders promote physician engagement.

Many of those best practices can be broken down into three distinct focus areas:

  1. Improve the physician onboarding process to engage new hires. Nearly one-quarter of newly hired physicians leave within three years, and each departure can cost upwards of $400,000. However, a robust onboarding process can reduce turnover and increase engagement. To learn more about how to build a strong program, download our toolkit, The Medical Leader's Guide to Onboarding Newly Hired Physicians.

    Get the Toolkit

  2. Hardwire physician input in strategic decisions and create bite-sized leadership opportunities. It's ok to acknowledge that full physician involvement in strategic decision making and leadership isn't possible given the time demands placed on physicians. But that doesn't mean physicians don't want to have a voice in operational initiatives or that there aren't less time-intensive opportunities for their input. To learn more about how leading institutions are striking this balance, read imperative number three in our report on Combatting Physician Burnout.

    Read the Report

  3. Communicate effectively to make sure the organization's strategic plans are being heard. Over half of physicians report that they're not kept informed of their organization's strategic plans. This may not reflect a lack of effort, but rather that messages can get lost in multiple channels or unclear messaging can go unnoticed. To avoid these common pitfalls, download our Physician Communication Toolkit, which offers benchmarks, templates, tips and step-by-step guides to improve communications.

    Download the Toolkit


Learn how to drive engagement across physicians’ first 90 days and beyond

Hospitals increasingly employ physicians but continue to struggle with engagement and turnover. Robust physician onboarding is leaders’ critical opportunity to sustain—and build on—new hires’ naturally high engagement levels during their first year of tenure.

Download this infographic to learn how to drive engagement across physicians’ first 90 days at your organization and beyond.

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