The authors of a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine estimate that physician burnout is costing this country’s health care system $4.6 billion annually, using a conservative base-case model (Ann Intern Med. 2019;170:784-90). I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the magnitude of the drain on our economy caused by unhappy physicians. We all know colleagues who are showing signs of burnout. And, you may be feeling yourself that the challenges of work are taking too great a toll on your physical and mental health? Would you be happier if you had more time?
A study reported in Harvard Business Review has looked at recent college graduates to determine if how they prioritize time and money can predict their future happiness (“Are New Graduates Happier Making More Money or Having More Time?” July 25, 2019). The researchers at the Harvard Business School surveyed 1,000 college students in the 2015 and 2016 classes of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. The students were asked to match themselves with descriptions of fictitious individuals to determine whether in general they prioritized time or money. The researchers then assessed the students’ level of happiness by asking them, “How satisfied are you with life overall?”
At a 2-year follow-up, the researchers found that, even taking into account the students’ level of happiness at the beginning of the study, “those who prioritized time were happier.” The authors also found that time-oriented people don’t necessarily work less or even earn more money, prompting their conclusion there is “strong evidence that valuing time puts people on a trajectory toward job satisfaction and well-being.”
Do the results of this study of Canadian college students provide any answers for our epidemic of physician burnout? One could argue that, if we wanted to minimize burnout, medical schools should include an assessment of each applicant’s level of happiness and how she or he prioritizes time and money using methods similar those used in this study? The problem is that some students are so heavily committed to becoming physicians that they would game the system and provide answers that will project the image that they are happy and prioritize time over money, when in reality they are ticking time bombs of discontent.
The bigger problem with interpreting the results of this study is that the subjects were Canadians who have significantly less educational debt than the medical students in this country. And as the authors observe, “people with objective financial constraints … are more likely to focus on having more money.” Even the happiest time-oriented student can succumb to burnout when faced with a ponderous debt. Until we solve the problem of the high cost of medical education the system will continue to select for physicians whose decisions are too heavily influenced by their educational debt.
Finally, it is important to consider that time-oriented individuals don’t always work less, rather they make decisions that make it more likely that they will pursue activities they find enjoyable. For example, accepting a higher-paying job that requires an additional 3 hours of commute each day lays the foundation for a life in which a large portion of one’s day is expended in an activity that few of us find enjoyable. Choosing a long commute is a personal decision. Spending nearly 2 hours each day tethered to an EHR system was not something most physicians anticipated when they were choosing a career.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.