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Are Doctors Happy? (Real Experiences From Real Doctors)

Are Doctors Happy? (Real Experiences From Real Doctors)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

It’s easy to hear a lot about the negatives of working in medicine. So much so, that it may leave you wondering if doctors are actually happy?

On the whole, doctors working in medicine are happy. As with any job, there are downsides to working as a physician but a study of 11,516 UK-trained doctors revealed that the majority of them rated their work as highly enjoyable (scores 8–10) five years after graduation.

People who are least satisfied with their work are normally the most vocal about it. So much so, that it may have come as a surprise to you to find out that 56% of doctors had a high level of enjoyment (scores 8–10) five years after graduation in this study published in the BMJ.

Each individual enjoyment rating below 5/10 had less than a 5% response figure in the study- really going to show that happy, satisfied doctors do seem to be in the silent majority.

However, there is rarely smoke without fire. In this article, I’ve collected together the experiences of a variety of doctors with varying experiences to help shed some light on the average experience of working in medicine.

Do Doctors Enjoy Their Life?

Medicine is an incredibly broad field in which hundreds of different job roles exist, all of which confer the title of ‘doctor’, but all offering a very different day-to-day experience.

You can have doctors that spend all day in a scientific laboratory, doctors in the military who work out of a backpack or doctors who are so specialised they pretty much only perform the same small handful of operations over and over again.

Because of how wide-ranging peoples’ experience of working in medicine can be, it’s very difficult to give a definitive answer ‘yes or no’ as to whether doctors are happy.

“Ever since choosing to pursue medicine I’ve never looked back. The work can be tough but it’s incredibly fulfilling and no two days are the same.”

Respiratory physician

Speaking for myself, having worked as a doctor for the last couple of years now, I can say that since starting medical school I’ve never regretted a moment of it. But that’s only my personal experience. To get a bit of a wider view, I reached out to some of my colleagues to get their views on the subject.

Two doctors attending a patient’s bedside in hospital

“I’ve had days when I really wasn’t sure if medicine was for me. But then there are other days when I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Working in medicine absolutely has its ups and downs but ultimately I’m still here and still love being a doctor.”

Haematology specialist

Although I do enjoy my job, working as a doctor has given me the insight to be able to perfectly understand why someone might not enjoy practising medicine. There are a lot of positives, but there are also a lot of downsides.

“I love what I do. Patients are always incredibly grateful to be able to get back to their daily lives and nothing feels as good as helping them be able to do that.”

Orthopaedic surgeon

If I could try and summarise the sentiment of my colleagues, the majority of whom being junior doctors working in the NHS, it would be that being a doctor in the NHS is incredibly hard work. It’s stressful, it’s time-consuming and it can be non-stop busy.

But equally, it’s incredibly rewarding. There’s no job that comes close to rivalling the variety, the satisfaction of a job well done or the challenge of an unwell patient.

We love to complain but I do think the majority of doctors enjoy their lives and as intelligent, educated and motivated professionals if it was really as bad as you might hear we’d all go and do something else!

What Type Of Doctor Is The Happiest?

If your heart is set on medicine, but you still plan on enjoying your life, you might be curious to find out what type of doctor is the happiest.

The happiest type of doctors are general practitioners. Working as a GP allows a doctor to maintain a healthy work-life balance whilst providing care to patients in the community, resulting in deeply satisfying work. Radiologists, anaesthetists and dermatologists also frequently rank highly for happiness.

Which specialty a doctor works in can have a real impact on their happiness and overall ability to enjoy life.

For example, as an emergency medicine specialist, if you don’t get on with night shifts then you’re going to have a bad time. The most interesting emergency medicine almost always occurs out-of-hours, so if you can’t deal with shifting sleep patterns then you’re going to struggle to enjoy your job.

Happiness RankSpecialty
1General practice
2Histopathology
3Clinical radiology
4Anaesthetics
5Dermatology
Data from the GMC 2018 trainee satisfaction survey

Despite all the different rankings and surveys of different doctors you can find online, it is essentially an entirely personal decision at the end of the day.

You personally have to be passionate about the specialty you’re going to pursue whether or not it features at the top of a list for ‘happiest doctors.’

But that’s not to say you can’t stack the odds in your favour. I think the key is to first figure out what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy, then finding a specialty that matches your personal preferences.

Why Can Doctors Become Unhappy?

Professional dissatisfaction in medicine is not a new phenomenon and poses a real threat to the NHS. If too many doctors become so unhappy they choose to leave medicine, the NHS will ultimately be faced with a severe shortage of doctors.

An alarming 31.5% of respondents to this BMJ study reported feelings of being highly burnt out: not a good sign for the profession or for patients.

So, why can doctors become so unhappy?

Doctors can become unhappy as a result of feeling overworked and undersupported. Working in medicine can be incredibly stressful. If a doctor makes a mistake, even if only as a result of their high workload or unsupportive environment, they can be liable for any harm that befalls a patient.

I definitely feel like I’ve got that at the back of my mind when I’m working on a particularly busy day. Unlike in many other professions, if you make a mistake as a doctor it can have serious implications for the patients you’re treating- and so in turn, for you.

A GP conducting a telephone consultation in her office

The NHS is a huge and incredibly complex system set up to deliver healthcare to patients. If things go wrong, it’s often as a result of multiple systemic failings, not just because an individual couldn’t be bothered to do their job right.

Doctors can therefore feel pretty hard done by when all the blame for a medical error lands on their shoulders, resulting in disciplinary action or even being struck off.

It’s this feeling that you’re walking on a tightrope, in often unsupportive professional environments, that can really get doctors down when combined with heavy workloads.

Final Thoughts

I think that doctors are generally happy in their work. I can’t say I ever had a doctor try and put me off the profession when I told them I was planning on studying medicine at university.

If you’re thinking about doing the same, I wouldn’t be put off by some of the negative headlines you might have come across.

As a sample size of one, I’d wholeheartedly recommend medicine to you as a career path and think you can truly cultivate a happy and fulfilling life in the field.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.