Secrets to psychological success: why older doctors might have lower psychological distress and burnout than younger doctors

Aging Ment Health. 2009 Mar;13(2):300-7. doi: 10.1080/13607860802459831.


Background: Doctors have long been exposed to situations that can induce psychological distress. Long hours, little acknowledgement, poor sleep and high-stress work environments all contribute to making doctors prone to psychological distress and burnout, which have been much studied in younger doctors, but less so in older doctors. Little is known about whether there are differences in psychological distress among different age groups of doctors.

Methods: Doctors (n = 158) were recruited from in and around the St George Hospital, a major teaching hospital in Sydney, Australia. Participants completed a self-report questionnaire, comprising the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), and Kessler 10 Psychological Distress Scale. Demographic details were collected. A subsample (n = 51) completed a semi-structured interview about issues related to burnout. These data were subjected to qualitative analysis.

Results: Older doctors and doctors with more years of experience had significantly lower scores on MBI subscales of Depersonalization and Emotional exhaustion, and K-10 measured psychological distress. Aspects of working conditions such as being in private practice were associated with increased scores on MBI subscales of Personal accomplishment, and lower scores on MBI subscales of Emotional exhaustion and Depersonalization, and K-10 measured psychological distress. Older doctors more frequently worked in private practice. These quantitative findings were supported by the qualitative data that suggested that older doctors perceived that they experienced less psychological distress compared with earlier in their careers, which they attributed to the development of protective defences in their relationship with patients and the liberation afforded by accumulation of experience and changed work conditions.

Conclusions: Findings from this study suggest that older, more experienced doctors report lower psychological distress and burnout than younger doctors which the older doctors attributed to lessons learned over their years of training and practice. It may be of considerable value to find ways to more efficiently pass on these lessons to younger doctors to aid them in dealing with this challenging profession. By soliciting older doctors to aid in this transfer of knowledge, this approach may also have the added benefit of assisting older doctors in transitioning from an active clinical practice to a role of mentoring the new physician cohort.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Burnout, Professional / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New South Wales / epidemiology
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnosis
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires