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Open Access Research article

Vocation and avocation: leisure activities correlate with professional engagement, but not burnout, in a cross-sectional survey of UK doctors

I C McManus12*, Hallgeir Jonvik2, Peter Richards3 and Elisabeth Paice4

Author affiliations

1 Academic Centre for Medical Education, Division of Medical Education, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

2 Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

3 Hughes Hall, Cambridge CB1 2EW, UK

4 London Deanery, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DN, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Medicine 2011, 9:100  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-9-100

Published: 30 August 2011

Abstract

Background

Sir William Osler suggested in 1899 that avocations (leisure activities) in doctors are related to an increased sense of vocation (professional engagement) and a decreased level of burnout. This study evaluated those claims in a large group of doctors practicing in the UK while taking into account a wide range of background variables.

Methods

A follow-up questionnaire was sent to 4,457 UK-qualified doctors who had been included in four previous studies of medical school selection and training, beginning in 1980, 1985, 1990 and 1989/1991. A total of 2,845 (63.8%) doctors returned the questionnaire. Questions particularly asked about work engagement, satisfaction with medicine as a career, and personal achievement (Vocation/engagement), stress, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization (BurnedOut), and 29 different leisure activities (Avocation/Leisure), as well as questions on personality, empathy, work experience, and demography.

Results

Doctors reporting more Avocation/Leisure activities tended to be women, to have older children, to be less surface-rational, more extravert, more open to experience, less agreeable, and to fantasize more. Doctors who were more BurnedOut tended to be men, to be more sleep-deprived, to report a greater workload and less choice and independence in their work, to have higher neuroticism, lower extraversion and lower agreeableness scores, and to have lower self-esteem. In contrast, doctors with a greater sense of Vocation/engagement, tended to see more patients, to have greater choice and independence at work, to have a deep approach to work, to have a more supportive-receptive work environment, to be more extravert and more conscientious, and to report greater self-esteem.

Avocation/Leisure activities correlated significantly with Vocation/engagement, even after taking into account 25 background variables describing demography, work, and personality, whereas BurnedOut showed no significant correlation with Avocation/Leisure activities. Popular Culture and High Culture did not differ in their influence on Vocation/engagement, although there was a suggestion that Depersonalization was correlated with more interest in Popular Culture and less interest in High Culture.

Conclusion

In this cross-sectional study there is evidence, even after taking into account a wide range of individual difference measures, that doctors with greater Avocation/Leisure activities also have a greater sense of Vocation/Engagement. In contrast, being BurnedOut did not relate to Avocation/Leisure activities (but did relate to many other measures). Osler was probably correct in recommending to doctors that, 'While medicine is to be your vocation, or calling, see to it that you also have an avocation'.