Improving pediatrician well-being and career satisfaction

The past two years haven’t been easy on children and teens. Their psychological well-being was already fraying prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has worsened amid the pandemic’s social isolation and trauma.1 More than 200,000 children have lost a parent or in-home caregiver to COVID-19,2 and nearly three-quarters of US parents say the pandemic has taken a toll on their child’s mental health.3

But in order to help children and adolescents, their doctors also need support. Our recent survey found that more than 60 percent of pediatricians reported experiencing at least one dimension of burnout, a form of exhaustion resulting from excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress (Exhibit 1). This condition can have a negative impact on the quality of care that doctors provide. According to one academic study on pediatric residents, doctors suffering from burnout were seven times more likely to make treatment errors, ten times more likely to ignore the social or personal impact of a child’s illness, and four times more likely to discharge a patient earlier than they should in an attempt to reduce their workload.4 Burnout can also cause pediatricians to want to leave the workforce.

Sixty-one percent of physicians in children’s hospitals are experiencing at least one dimension of burnout.

Why pediatricians are experiencing burnout

To identify some of the major factors causing high levels of stress, fatigue, and apathy among pediatricians, we surveyed 451 doctors at children’s hospitals around the country (see sidebar, “Methodology”). Our findings offer insight into how employers—whether large or small health systems or independent practices—could lessen the load for these doctors, improve their workplaces, and ultimately retain these highly trained providers. In this article, we identify the unique needs of specific pediatrician groups, look at pediatricians’ career plans, and highlight the immediate steps organizations could take to continue meeting both patient and physician needs.

Women bear a disproportionate burden of the profession’s burnout

Some demographic factors are associated with elevated levels of burnout.

Pediatricians with diagnosed mental illnesses may be more susceptible to burnout and attrition

  • Pediatricians are no more likely than the general population to have a diagnosed mental illness or seek treatment for a mental illness. In both groups, the incidence is roughly 20 percent.8
  • A majority (70 percent) of surveyed pediatricians with a diagnosed mental illness said they are experiencing at least one dimension of burnout. They were also twice as likely to say they intend to leave their position in the next year compared with pediatricians without a mental illness, at 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively (Exhibit 3).
Physicians with a diagnosed mental illness are at particularly high risk of burnout and attrition.

A majority (70 percent) of surveyed pediatricians with a diagnosed mental illness said they are experiencing at least one dimension of burnout.

One in five pediatricians plans to leave their job in the next year, and nearly half of those considering leaving in the next five years plan to leave medicine entirely

Among physicians who are likely to leave, half are considering leaving the practice of medicine.

The majority of factors driving pediatricians to leave stem from workplace dissatisfaction

  • Four of the top five reasons pediatricians gave for wanting to leave their jobs relate directly to working conditions, workloads, and organizational culture. A majority of respondents said they don’t feel listened to or supported at work, staffing levels are insufficient, and the workload is too intense (Exhibit 5).
Not feeling listened to and family demands are the most important factors in physicians’ decisions to leave.

There is a mismatch between the support pediatricians want from their employers and what they are getting

  • Eight of the ten largest gaps between what pediatricians want and what employers provide relate to the working model and the organizational culture. Surveyed doctors said they want increased administrative support, flexible working hours, and more attention from leaders to their well-being and psychological safety (Exhibit 6).
  • Our survey also found that employers may put too much effort into areas that have minimal impact on burnout, including employee resource groups, culture trainings, and technological support. Employers also tend to consistently underestimate how workplace elements are negatively affecting employee mental health and well-being, with another recent McKinsey survey showing an average gap of 22 percent between employer and employee perceptions.10Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem?,” McKinsey, May 27, 2022.
Physicians want more support from employers on a range of factors.

How employers can help

Supporting pediatricians is critical. If left unaddressed, burnout among these professionals may lead to an increased shortage of essential caregivers that could take years to resolve. To ensure that an ample workforce is available to support the optimal physical and mental well-being of children and families, employers can consider several actions:

Just like their patients, pediatric-healthcare professionals need to be cared for and supported. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to physician burnout, pediatric-health employers can look to the specific needs of their workforce in order to address overall pediatrician well-being and retention.

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