Does Earning More Money Prevent Burnout?

The concept of “money can’t buy happiness” is popular in personal finance and physician circles. People are quick to cite studies claiming that after a certain level of income, earning more money does not increase happiness. I’m not buying it.

It is true that some of my happiest moments occurred when I was broke. It’s also true that physical possessions like my big dumb house have not made me an ounce happier (I prefer alternative luxury items). That doesn’t mean that people who earn more money aren’t happier. When spent properly, money buys you freedom and freedom feels an awful lot like happiness. Would you settle for a long term lease on happiness?

fire extinguisher
Soothe your burn.

I thought it would be fun to look at some data on physician income and burnout rates. If money buys happiness, it stands to reason that higher paid physicians should suffer less burnout. Likewise, lower paid physicians should suffer higher rates of burnout.

Any predictions? Let’s get started.

Burnout Rates by State

I used the Medscape 2018 Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report data and mapped out the physician burnout rates for each state.

burnout by state
Burnout from sea to shining sea.

Physician Salary by State

I used the same physician salary data from Supply and Demand to do today’s study. Here is the average salary for emergency physicians in all 50 states. Like physician burnout rates, these salaries are all over the map (pun intended).

Why did I pick emergency physician data? Easy – I’m an ER doc and that’s what interests me. Furthermore, I think emergency medicine is a middle of the road reflection of the House of Medicine. We certainly make less than surgical sub-specialists like neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons or ENTs. We make more than pediatricians and family doctors. Chances are that no matter where you live, ER docs are somewhere around the middle of Physician salaries.

map - average em salary

 

Does Money Prevent Burnout?

With plenty of data in hand, I got to work plotting it out on this handy graph. Do you notice anything about the slope of this trend line? As physician salary goes up, burnout rates go down.

 

burnout vs salary

Specialty Specific

I suspect you’re still skeptical. You likely don’t care what an ER doc makes in Oklahoma. Maybe you’re a family doc from Florida or an OB/Gyn from Michigan. Let’s use specialty specific data from the Medscape surveys to find something applicable for you.

Here are the national average physician salaries for each specialty:

Here are the burnout rates by specialty from the same Medscape survey:

Now let’s plot out burnout vs salary for all the specialties and see what trends appear.

burnout vs salary - all specialties

Why would more money = less burnout?

I’m not naive enough to think that the possession of money or material goods directly increases happiness.  Is it possible that higher income is a marker of something else?  What are some reasons higher paid docs may find their jobs more satisfying?

  • They feel their time is valued – No one wants to feel like their time is being wasted.  If you’re going to spend hours away from your friends, family and hobbies you want to have something to show for it.
  • They have less money stress – Money generates more stress than most other things.  You know who has low money stress?  A high paid doc who lives below their means, pays off all their debt and has ample cash flow.
  • They can afford to work less – Most docs would agree that one cure for burnout is to simply work less.  It is easier for a doc earning $400,000/year to afford going part time than a doc earning $150,000.
  • They can retire early – How would your attitude towards work change if you knew you were only working because you wanted to, instead of because you had to?  Becoming financially independent may not be easy, but it is simple:  Earn, Save, Invest.  Docs who earn more are more likely to be able to save and invest enough to retire early.
  • They can be more generous – there is plenty of data to suggest that one of the best ways to find fulfillment from your money is to give it away. Higher income could translate into higher donations to charity. These docs may find more fulfillment from their job because they view it as a way to fund causes they’re passionate about.
  • High income implies higher demand – No one likes feeling trapped. Higher paid physicians may feel less burnout because they know their high demand specialty allows them to change jobs if they’re unsatisfied. You don’t find a lot of unemployed plastic surgeons scouring the help wanted ads.

Limitations

Burnout data could certainly be biased. People aren’t always the best at introspection. It’s also possible that there is a sampling bias – docs who are satisfied with their pay (and career in general) are more likely to respond to a survey.

Maybe all the high paid docs were too busy earning more money to take the burnout survey. Maybe all the low paid angry docs took the survey and skewed the results.

What Do You Think?

Is it just a coincidence that higher paying specialties report less burnout? Are they just fooling themselves or is it possible that high income is a marker for something else? Share your thoughts and comments below.

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6 thoughts on “Does Earning More Money Prevent Burnout?

  1. I’m still not convinced that you have less chance of burnout because of income level. Radiology on the list is #5 in terms of salary, but tied for #6 in burnout rate. I know I have felt burnout (and still have occasions where it comes back) and my income level would probably place me in top 5% or higher of docs.

    But it is interesting that the data given does favor some correlation at least.

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    1. Certainly correlation is different than causation, but I do enjoy playing devil’s advocate.

      The Physician blogosphere is full of financially independent docs who have amassed large piles of cash which allowed them retire or cut back in their 40s. None of that would have been possible without first earning a large salary.

      Do you think your burnout would feel different if you were working this hard for half your current salary? Would it sting less if you suddenly were earning double?

      I don’t think money can buy happiness, but the perceived value of your time may impact people’s attitudes towards their jobs.

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  2. Great Article. Good thoughts… I think it’s difficult to really establish a correlation between Income and burnout since medscape has only, effectively, given you 50 data points (even though these data points do represent whole populations of physicians). It would have been nice if medscape would give up all the raw survey data to do a more in-depth analysis.

    The other problem is that you’re looking at reimbursement for only EM physicians, while the burnout data reflects all specialties. The relative pay across specialties can differ across states a fair bit.

    Another huge factor is cost of living. Obviously, $300k in the midwest goes a lot further than $300k in NYC or San Francisco.

    Personally, I think the work environment effects burnout the most. I trained in a hospital that was financially distraught, as a result they cut the nursing retirement package and pay. In short, the good nurses left (or couldn’t be hired by the hospital) and the poor morale had permeated the entire staff. The attendings were well reimbursed there, but HATED the job and kept leaving. Perhaps this reflects your point about feeling appreciated and like your time is valued. Of course, I work in anesthesia and it may differ across specialties.

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