Perspectives of meaningful work in a high-burnout academic medical center: a discourse analysis

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Timothy Atkinson *
Molly Gathright
James Clardy
Carol Thrush
Erick Messias
(*) Corresponding Author:
Timothy Atkinson |


We conducted a discourse analysis of meaningful work from the perspective of healthcare workers in an academic medical center where we previously observed relatively high levels of personal burnout (52.7%) and work-related burnout (47.5%), all based on the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory survey. Burnout is often studied as psychological condition characterized by exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of inefficacy or lack of career achievement, but as demonstrated in this analysis, burnout loses its meaning because healthcare professionals provide a robust account of what makes work meaningful to them despite their prevalence of burnout. Healthcare professionals exhibit a higher level of burnout compared to workforce members in other organizations. Physicians specifically are at high risk for exhibiting symptoms of burnout and work-life imbalances. In addition, burnout manifests itself early in the physician’s career compared other occupations, and in our sample was prevalent among nurses, too. In this discourse analysis of written answers to the survey question, In ten words or less describe what makes your work meaningful? healthcare professionals provide an account of meaningful work that maintains its value in this environment despite the level of burnout, especially when healthcare professionals can use their hard-earned knowledge to make a difference in the lives of people, and observe the results of their work, which is beyond just taking care of patients. Nurses accounted for meaningful work in terms of close connections with patients, while being closely focused on ability to provide professional care and experiencing the outcomes associated with that care, and knowing that they have done a good job. Physicians were patient focused, and they expressed meaningful work in terms of making a difference, and using their abilities to help patients. Basic scientists accounted for meaningful work in terms of their training and abilities to use science for the betterment of others in society.

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Author Biography

James Clardy, Department of Psychiatry, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, Arkansas