Demystifying Well-Being for Physicians

Posted on November 2, 2023 by Sharon C. Kiely, MD, MPM, FACP

Updated November 2, 2023

The well-being of physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners and others providing care was put in the spotlight by the COVID pandemic like never before. Even though it had been a live issue for many years prior to 2020, given the pressures of modern medicine, the frequency of burnout and the loss of joy in medicine had been affecting many in healthcare. These factors have made physician well-being a major concern and many organizations have been persuaded to address it.

Yet many have been addressing it without being exactly sure what it is. 


For some, it’s limited to the physical health of the medical workforce. Others add it’s about addressing troubling psychological states like depression and suicidality. Most agree it has a lot to do with forestalling burnout and its many negative consequences, from medical errors to patient dissatisfaction, to lower productivity and resignations. There seem to be many definitions and opinions, but not much of a consensus.

The result of a not-quite-clear understanding of well-being can lead to a not-quite-, or not-at-all-adequate well-being solution. In my article on how organizations can commit to well-being rather than merely address it, I review how they can truly invest in their dollar investment in well-being programs. 

I recommend we demystify the concept of well-being. And as there’s a lack of well-being expertise in American healthcare organizations right now, organizations would highly benefit with the help of experts in what well-being is.

A Measure of Flourishing

One source of expertise and wisdom on the subject, used by VITAL WorkLife, is the Harvard Flourishing Measure, a set of criteria developed by the Human Flourishing Program at the university’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. It measures six areas: 

  • Happiness and life satisfaction 
  • Mental and physical health 
  • Meaning and purpose (The Measure defines this as feeling that the things one does are worthwhile and that one has a purpose in life.)
  • Character and virtue “([Acting] to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations…[and] able to give up some happiness now for greater happiness later.”)
  • Close social relationships 
  • Financial and material security

The topics hit home for many in the medical profession—burnout implies a loss of purpose; moral injury may involve the sense that the physician is not “promoting good in all circumstances”; overwork can damage relationships as well as mental and physical health; and the list goes on. 

If we use these criteria to define well-being, we’re referring to a wide swath of human life and action—and a challenge for leadership to come to terms with it. Assessing the well-being of individuals and teams is a new skill set in medicine, but it’s one that is going to be necessary to have from here on.

For more on getting help to acquire this important skill set, and why it matters, read our most recent article.


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