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Open Access Research article

Not all coping strategies are created equal: a mixed methods study exploring physicians' self reported coping strategies

Jane B Lemaire1* and Jean E Wallace2

Author Affiliations

1 Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary, Health Sciences Center, 3330 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, T2N 4N1, Canada

2 Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, T2N 1N4, Canada

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:208  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-208

Published: 14 July 2010

Abstract

Background

Physicians experience workplace stress and draw on different coping strategies. The primary goal of this paper is to use interview data to explore physicians' self reported coping strategies. In addition, questionnaire data is utilized to explore the degree to which the coping strategies are used and are associated with feelings of emotional exhaustion, a key symptom of burnout.

Methods

This mixed methods study explores factors related to physician wellness within a large health region in Western Canada. This paper focuses on the coping strategies that physicians use in response to work-related stress. The qualitative component explores physicians' self reported coping strategies through open ended interviews of 42 physicians representing diverse medical specialties and settings (91% response rate). The major themes extracted from the qualitative interviews were used to construct 12 survey items that were included in the comprehensive quantitative questionnaire. Questionnaires were sent to all eligible physicians in the health region with 1178 completed surveys (40% response rate.) Questionnaire items were used to measure how often physicians draw on the various coping strategies. Feelings of burnout were also measured in the survey by 5 items from the Emotional Exhaustion subscale of the revised Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Results

Major themes identified from the interviews include coping strategies used at work (e.g., working through stress, talking with co-workers, taking a time out, using humor) and after work (e.g., exercise, quiet time, spending time with family). Analysis of the questionnaire data showed three often used workplace coping strategies were positively correlated with feeling emotionally exhausted (i.e., keeping stress to oneself (r = .23), concentrating on what to do next (r = .16), and going on as if nothing happened (r = .07)). Some less often used workplace coping strategies (e.g., taking a time out) and all those used after work were negatively correlated with frequency of emotional exhaustion.

Conclusions

Physicians' self reported coping strategies are not all created equal in terms of frequency of use and correlation with feeling emotionally exhausted from one's work. This knowledge may be integrated into practical physician stress reduction interventions.