How Physician Stress Levels Vary By Age, Experience, and Workplace

April 14, 2012

How stressed are you compared to your physician colleagues?

Are you as stressed, less stressed, or more stressed than your fellow physicians in your age group? How does your stress level compare to physicians in similar work environments? How does it compare to physicians with a similar level of experience? 

New survey findings, recently released by Physician Wellness Services, a company that works with healthcare organizations to improve working conditions, shed light on some interesting stress-related trends.

One might think that young physicians with less experience are more stressed than their older colleagues. After all, they are new to medical practice, many are new homeowners, and some are new parents.

But according to the study, which surveyed more than 2,000 doctors, stress levels for physicians tend to peak when they reach their 40s, then begin to decline when physicians reach their 50s.

Stress levels also tend to be highest in mid-career physicians, defined by the study as those who have been practicing between 11 years and 20 years.

Practice Notes blogger and endocrinologist Mellissa Young, who falls into the most stressed age and experience bracket according to the study, says the findings are understandable.

“Those of us in the middle - private practice owners, kids getting ready for college, parents getting older and frail and needing our care” are probably more stressed, she said in an e-mail to Physicians Practice. “We are also caught between losing some of that initial fervor and idealism, and the shoulder-shrugging, ‘I won't have to put up with the much longer’ attitude.”

Stress among middle-aged, mid-experienced physicians, could also be due to the fact that more and more physicians are choosing to work part time.

According to the 2010 Physician Retention Survey by physician recruiting firm Cejka Search and the American Medical Group Association, the number of physicians working part time, (under 40 hours per week), increased nearly 10 percent between 2005 and 2010.

It’s likely that the majority of physicians who choose to work part time are younger physicians and older physicians. Younger physicians tend to cut back to start families and pursue a better work-life balance. Older physicians tend to work part-time as they approach retirement.

Perhaps that’s placing pressure on physicians in the middle of the pack to make up the difference by working harder and longer hours.

As to why stress levels decline as physicians enter their 50s, Young said older physicians are likely enjoying a less stress-filled personal life. “The kids are gone, the parents are gone, they are getting ready for retirement and are cutting back,” she said.

Another interesting study finding is that practice setting - private, hospital, etc. - seems to have little effect on daily stress levels of physicians. The survey did note, however, that solo physicians report the highest daily stress levels. And it indicated that over the last three years, solo physicians have experienced more stress than their colleagues.

This is likely a result of the uncertainty faced due to health reform, declines in reimbursement, and a poor economy. Though these influences are stressing every physician, regardless of practice type, solo physicians are probably hit the hardest.

“I'm not solo practice anymore, but when I was, everything fell on my shoulders,” said Young. “Not just patient care, all the phone calls, the paperwork, the business details, the office maintenance, the staffing - all this with no one to bounce ideas off of, to get an opinion, do share call with, to reassure me I wasn't alone and I wasn't crazy.”

What do you think of the survey findings? Do the stress levels trends indicated by the survey match up to what you experience/experienced?