A recent study sheds light on the heightened risk for burnout among physicians who take infrequent vacations and engage in patient-related work during their time off.
Conducted by the American Medical Association (AMA), the study focuses on the United States, where labor regulations regarding vacation days and compensation differ from German norms. Despite this distinction, it provides valuable insights into the vacation behavior of doctors and its potential impact on burnout risk.
Christine A. Sinsky, MD, study author and senior physician advisor for physician satisfaction at the AMA, and her colleagues invited more than 90,000 physicians to participate in a survey that used postal and computer-based methods. In all, 3024 physicians, mainly those contacted by mail, filled out the questionnaire.
Limited Vacation Days
A significant proportion (59.6%) of respondents reported having taken fewer than 15 vacation days in the previous year, with nearly 20% taking fewer than 5 days off. Even when officially on vacation, most (70.4%) found themselves dealing with patient-related tasks. For one third, these tasks consumed at least 30 minutes on a typical vacation day, often longer. This phenomenon was noted especially among female physicians.
Doctors who took less vacation and worked during their time off displayed higher emotional exhaustion and reported feeling less fulfilled in their profession.
Administrative tasks, though no longer confined to paper, significantly influenced physicians’ vacation behavior. In the United States, handling messages from patients through the electronic health records (EHR) inbox demands a considerable amount of time.
Courses and tutorials on EHR inbox management are on the rise. A 2023 review linked electronic health records management to an increased burnout risk in the US medical community.
Lack of Coverage
Many physicians lack coverage for their EHR inbox during their absence. Less than half (49.1%) stated that someone else manages their inbox while they are on vacation.
Difficulty in finding coverage, whether for the EHR inbox or patient care, is a leading reason why many physicians seldom take more than 3 weeks of vacation per year. Financial considerations also contribute to this decision, as revealed in the survey.
Vacation Lowers Risk
Further analysis showed that doctors who took more than 3 weeks of vacation per year, which is not common, had a lower risk of developing burnout. Having coverage for vacation was also associated with reduced burnout risk and increased professional fulfillment.
However, these benefits applied only when physicians truly took a break during their vacation. Respondents who spent 30 minutes or more per day on patient-related work had a higher burnout risk. The risk was 1.58 times greater for 30-60 minutes, 1.97 times greater for 60-90 minutes, and 1.92 times greater for more than 90 minutes.
The vacation behavior observed in this study likely exacerbates the effects of chronic workplace overload that are associated with long working hours, thus increasing the risk for burnout, according to the researchers.
“System-level measures must be implemented to ensure physicians take an appropriate number of vacation days,” wrote the researchers. “This includes having coverage available to handle clinical activities and administrative tasks, such as managing the EHR inbox. This could potentially reduce the burnout rate among physicians.”
This article was translated from the Medscape German edition.