In stressful jobs, depression risk rises with hours worked, study in new doctors finds

In stressful jobs, depression risk rises with hours worked, study in new doctors finds

The authors say their findings point to a clear need to further reduce the number of hours residents work each week on average.

“This analysis suggests strongly that reducing the average number of work hours would make a difference in the degree to which interns’ depressive symptoms increase over time, and reduce the number who develop diagnosable depression,” said Amy Bohnert, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and a professor at the UM Medical School. “The key thing is to have people work fewer hours; you can more effectively deal with the stresses or frustrations of your job when you have more time to recover.”

Yu Fang, MSE, the study’s lead author and a research specialist at the Michigan Neuroscience Institute, notes that the number of hours is important, but so are the training opportunities that come from time spent in hospitals and clinics. “It is important to use the time spent at work for supervised learning opportunities, and not low-value clinical service tasks,” she said.

A population ripe for study

The new study uses a design called an emulated clinical trial, which simulates a randomized clinical trial in situations where conducting a real randomized trial is not feasible. Because nearly all interns nationwide start at about the same time of year and are subject to varying work schedules set by their programs, studying people going through this stage of medical training is ideal for emulating a clinical trial.

This opportunity is what led Intern Health Study founder Srijan Sen, MD, launch the research project in the first place: New physicians entering the most stressful year of their careers make a perfect group in which to study the role of many factors in the risk or onset of depression.

The authors suggest that studies parallel to this work on physicians should be conducted in other high-stress and high-work-hour jobs. “We would expect that the negative effect of long work hours on physician mental health would be present in other professions,” said Sen.

SEE ALSO: Studies show special mental health risks for certain groups of new doctors (

The average age of the doctors in the study was 27, and just over half were women. One in five were training in surgical disciplines, and 18% were from racial or ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the medical profession.

Less than 1 in 20 met the criteria for moderate to severe depression at the start of intern year. In all, 46% had a stressful life event such as a family death or birth, or getting married, during their intern year, and 37% said they had been involved in at least one medical error during the year.

In analyzing the results, the researchers adjusted for gender, neuroticism, pre-internship history of depression, early family environment, age, year they began internship, marital status, whether they had children, and stressful life events and medical errors during the intern year .

Make a difference for today’s medical residents

“National initiatives on clinician well-being have put increasing emphasis on the complex set of factors that affect clinician well-being, including the electronic health record, regulatory burden, resilience, workplace violence and culture,” said Sen, the director of the EFDC and the Eisenberg Professor of Depression and Neurosciences. “I think this emphasis has inadvertently led to the feeling that the problem is infinitely complicated and making real progress is hopeless. This paper demonstrates how big of an impact that the single factor of work hours has on clinician depression and well-being.”

Sen is part of National Academy of Medicine’s Working Group on Navigating the Impacts of COVID-19 on Clinician Well-Being, part of a larger effort that recently issued a National Plan for Health Workforce Well-Being.

SEE ALSO: Medical training takes a mental toll, but less of one that it did a decade ago (

Bohnert notes that residency directors running training programs for new doctors could reduce work hours by prioritizing efforts that increase efficiency and decreases unnecessary work. She and Sen are both members of the UM Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Fang also notes that the data from US residents may apply to junior doctors, as they’re called, in other nations. The Intern Health Study now enrolls interns in China and Kenya as well.

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This study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH101459)

Paper cited: “Work Hours and Depression in US First-Year Physicians,” N Engl J Med. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2210365

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