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Comparing doctors to each other increases risk of burnout, study finds

Experts say many health care providers don't feel satisfied in their roles

Doctor burnout concept
Photo (c) Moyo Studio - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California explored how comparing job performances of physicians can be harmful. According to their findings, health care providers are more likely to feel unsatisfied with their roles and experience burnout when they're compared to their peers.

“Behavioral interventions such as providing peer comparison information offer attractive, cost-effective ways to promote positive behavior change,” said researcher Dr. Justin Zhang. “This research highlights the importance of assessing less visible outcomes, such as job satisfaction and burnout, when policymakers and organizational leaders implement seemingly innocuous behavioral interventions.” 

Long-term effects of job comparison

The researchers conducted a five-month experiment with nearly 200 primary care physicians to understand how being compared to others can affect job satisfaction and burnout. One group of doctors received information about their job performance compared to their colleagues, which is a behavioral method traditionally used among health care providers to improve their caregiving. The second group of doctors didn’t receive any comparative data on their performance versus their peers. 

Ultimately, the comparison among the physicians wasn’t found to be helpful. Rather than promote better preventative care, the doctors who received information on how their performances compared to other doctors experienced greater dissatisfaction in their roles and a higher likelihood of burnout. 

The researchers explained that many of the health care providers felt that this practice of comparing them to their peers affected how they viewed their superiors. They didn’t feel supported by doctors in leadership roles, and that impacted how they felt about their own positions. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that more work is done to guide health care providers in a way that is more supportive. 

“This work also underscores the importance of attending to the way in which an intervention may inadvertently change employees’ perceptions of their managers and thus elicit negative reactions,” said Dr. Zhang. “To preempt negative perceptions, such as reduced feelings of leadership support, this research suggests that organizational leaders ought to engage employees in the design phase of an intervention, probe their feelings, and revise the design if needed. 

“Finally, this work highlights that when leaders offer the necessary context and support to accompany a peer comparison intervention, recipients may draw more positive inferences about their leaders’ intent. This can buffer against the harmful effects of peer comparison interventions on well-being.” 

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