Physician Task Load and the Risk of Burnout Among US Physicians in a National Survey

Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2021 Feb;47(2):76-85. doi: 10.1016/j.jcjq.2020.09.011. Epub 2020 Oct 4.


Background: Cognitive task load can affect providers' ability to perform their job well and may contribute to burnout.

Methods: The researchers evaluated whether task load, measured by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Task Load Index (TLX), correlated with burnout scores in a large national study of US physicians between October 2017 and March 2018 with a 17.1% response rate. Burnout was measured using the Emotional Exhaustion and Depersonalization scales of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, and a high score on either score was considered a manifestation of professional burnout. The NASA-TLX was chosen to evaluate physician task load (PTL) due to its robust validation and use across many industries, including health care, over the past 30 years. The domains included in the PTL were mental, physical, and temporal demands, and perception of effort.

Results: Mean score in task load dimension varied by specialty. In aggregate, high emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and one symptom of burnout was seen in 38.8%, 27.4%, and 44.0% of participants, respectively. The mean PTL score was 260.9/400 (standard deviation = 71.4). The specialties with the highest PTL score were emergency medicine, urology, anesthesiology, general surgery subspecialties, radiology, and internal medicine subspecialties. A dose response relationship between PTL and burnout was observed. For every 40-point (10%) decrease in PTL there was 33% lower odds of experiencing burnout (odds ratio = 0.67, 95% confidence interval = 0.65-0.70, p < 0.0001).

Conclusion: The relationship between PTL and burnout may suggest areas of particular focus to improve the practice environment and reduce physician burnout.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesiology*
  • Burnout, Professional* / epidemiology
  • Burnout, Psychological
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Physicians*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires