Working conditions in primary care: a qualitative interview study with physicians in Sweden informed by the Effort-Reward-Imbalance model

BMC Fam Pract. 2021 Jul 10;22(1):149. doi: 10.1186/s12875-021-01500-1.


Background: Many problems with primary care physicians' psychosocial working conditions have been documented. Many studies on working condition have used the Effort-Reward-Imbalance (ERI) model, which posits that poor health and well-being may result from imbalances between the level of effort employees perceive that they put into their work and the rewards they receive. The model has not been used in qualitative research or applied to investigate primary care physicians' working conditions. The aim of this study was to apply the ERI model to explore the perceived efforts and rewards by primary care physicians in Sweden and approaches they take to cope with potential imbalances between these efforts and rewards.

Methods: The study has a qualitative design, using semi-structured interviews. A purposeful sampling strategy was used to achieve a heterogeneous sample of primary care physicians who represented a broad spectrum of experiences and perceptions. We recruited 21 physicians; 15 were employed in public health care and 6 by private health care companies.

Results: The analysis of the interviews yielded 11 sub-categories: 6 were mapped to the efforts category, 3 were attributed to the rewards category and 2 were approaches to coping with effort/reward imbalances. Many of the statements concerned efforts in the form of high workload, restricted autonomy and administrative work burden. They also perceived resource restrictions, unpredictability of work and high expectations in their role as physicians as efforts. Three types of rewards emerged; the physicians found their job to be stimulating and meaningful, and the work climate to be supportive. The physicians coped with imbalances by means of job enrichment and using decisional latitude.

Conclusions: Primary care physicians perceive numerous types of efforts in their job, which is consistent with research concerning work stress and associated consequences, such as poor subjective health and well-being. There are also rewards according to primary care physicians, but the findings suggest a lack of reciprocity in terms of efforts and rewards although firm conclusions cannot be drawn since the study did not investigate the magnitude of the various efforts and rewards or the effectiveness of the approaches the physicians use to cope with imbalances. The ERI model was found to be useful to explore physicians' primary care work and working conditions but its applicability likely depends on the type of work or professions being studied.

Keywords: Efforts; Job satisfaction; Over-commitment; Physicians; Primary care; Rewards; Working conditions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Job Satisfaction*
  • Physicians*
  • Primary Health Care
  • Qualitative Research
  • Reward
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Sweden
  • Workload