Masked health care worker in a dark setting
An improved work-life balance is necessary for the overall well-being of doctors, U of G study recommends. (Mulyadi/Unsplash)

The work-life balance of doctors is severely impaired, a University of Guelph study has found, and the COVID-19 pandemic has likely made matters worse.

The study involved a snapshot of doctors’ experiences at a top research hospital and revealed that they are overworked, overstressed and exhausted and are sacrificing their own well-being and life with their families for their work.

While doctors’ work may be satisfying, challenging and important, it comes at a great cost to personal health and family life, the study showed.

Principal investigator Dr. Leanne Son Hing, Department of Psychology, said doctors are doing very well in some respects because they have many resources and perks that help them cope with job demands such as stimulating and meaningful work, flexibility and job fulfillment.

“But at the same time, they have all of this stress – the workload is crushing, the demands are super high, with all the pressures of clinical work teaching and the need to publish,” Son Hing said.

“This creates really high levels of stress, and they run out of time for themselves or their families. They don’t have much left to devote to partners when they get home, and they squeeze out as much time and attention as they can for their children. This means very little is left for self-care or sleep for themselves.”

Women with dark hair and glasses
Dr. Leanne Son Hing

The study, co-authored by Rebecca Lee, PhD candidate in industrial-organizational psychology, was recently published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Health-care workers have become heroes in society during the pandemic, Son Hing said. But it is important to understand the enormous amount of stress doctors are under and to take steps to prevent burnout, for their sake and the sake of their patients, she added.

“As a group, physicians are not doing very well. They have very high levels of burnout and they don’t prioritize taking care of themselves.”

The researchers interviewed 30 medical faculty at one of North America’s most prestigious research hospitals — 19 women and 11 men, with an average tenure of about 13 years. Interviews were an hour long, and researchers used a qualitative thematic analysis approach to analyze them.

Young woman smiling
PhD candidate Rebecca Lee

“We wanted to understand their work-life conflict and their work-life facilitation – the ways that their work life and home life interact with each other, the negatives and the positives,” Lee said, adding that the doctors had many “heartbreaking” stories to tell about the impact of their workload on their families.

“Some were saying that their relationship with their spouse was where compromise could be made,” Lee said. “Another said that their child felt that they had sacrificed their parent to the hospital.”

Many participants said that when work and family conflicted, they always devoted their time to work.

“This created enormous strain because while these doctors value parenthood and don’t want to miss out on all the walks to school, piano recitals and parent-teacher interviews, they feel they must make a choice, which often favours work,” Lee said.

The researchers were called in by the hospital after concerning results turned up in employee surveys. Physicians rated job satisfaction and engagement very high but reported extreme levels of work-life conflict.

“They wanted us to come in to understand why these two things are occurring simultaneously – how they can be so happy in some respects and so unhappy in other respects,” Son Hing said.

The interviews were done before the pandemic was declared. But COVID-19 has undoubtedly made matters worse, Son Hing said.

The threat of contracting COVID-19 in the hospital setting and taking it home, along with increased workloads, has intensified physician stress and has left many with no time for their families.

While doctors involved in the study experienced high emotional exhaustion, they did not experience other components of burnout such as reduced self-efficacy and depersonalization. Rather, they feel that the work they do is important, with a massive impact on patients and families.

Lee said the study recommends the promotion of a culture that supports excellence in research and patient care, as well as wellness for medical staff and healthy home lives for doctors.

It concludes that hospital leadership should work to lessen unnecessary job demands, increase supportive job resources, recognize all aspects of job performance and encourage a climate that fosters a work-life balance.

This research was supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.


Dr. Leanne Son Hing

Rebecca Lee