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

Elizabeth Harry, Christine Sinsky, Lotte N. Dyrbye, Maryam S. Makowski, Mickey Trockel, Michael Tutty, Lindsey E. Carlasare, Colin P. West, Tait D. Shanafelt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)76-85
Number of pages10
JournalJoint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Leadership and Management


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