Physician Leadership and Burnout: The Need for Agency; a Qualitative Study of an Academic Institution

James S. Hu*, Louis N. Pangaro, Bami M.Gloria Andrada, Rachel C. Ceasar, Jennifer L. Phillips

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Purpose: Organizational approaches to physician burnout are limited. Training physician leaders to influence the organizational environment is a growing area of study. This study explored perceived physician leadership behaviors in response to burnout from the viewpoint of faculty physicians not in formal leadership positions. Understanding physician leadership behaviors from the viewpoint of those faculty being led can inform organizational strategy and leadership training to address physician burnout. Subjects and Methods: Interview requests were sent to 70 randomly identified faculty physicians from a roster containing all 1145 physician faculty that excluded the Pediatric Department, at an academic health care institution in Southern California. The first ten respondents were asked to participate in a 30-to-40-minute semi-structured virtual interview via Zoom. The interviewees were asked two questions pertaining to burnout and their perception of how leadership responded. The two questions were “What has leadership done to address burnout?” and “If you had five minutes to advise your leaders on burnout, what would you say?” The recorded interviews were transcribed, redacted, and then sent to two reviewers. Thematic analysis through iterative coding was completed, and categories were constructed that aligned with the two interview questions. Results: Overall, five themes were identified. These themes were organized according to the interview questions and broadly categorized as physician leadership behaviors observed that corresponded to the interview question of what leadership had done to address burnout and physician leadership behaviors desired corresponding to the second interview question of what advice should be given. Leadership behaviors observed in the context of burnout included three themes; referral to individual wellness programs, increased number of meetings and events, and a lack of agency in addressing wellness issues. The two themes of leadership behaviors desired were the obtainment of more resources and the granting of greater appreciation and recognition for work done through enhanced communication. Conclusion: This small study of faculty physician perceptions of leadership behaviors identified several themes that had been identified in previous studies of leadership and burnout; need for relationship building through communication, need for resources to address work issues, and referral to wellness programs. However, the identification of a lack of agency in addressing factors in the wellness environment has not been identified in the previous burnout and physician leadership literature. Further study into the causes of this perceived lack of agency should be explored. Understanding the root causes of physician leaders’ lack of agency can further inform physician leadership education as an organizational approach to burnout.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-130
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Healthcare Leadership
StatePublished - 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • burnout
  • health care
  • leadership
  • physician
  • qualitative


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