Surgeon stress affects cognitive and psychomotor performance both inside and outside of the operating room

Am J Surg. 2012 Dec 12. pii: S0002-9610(12)00543-0. doi: 10.1016/j.amjsurg.2012.08.003. [Epub ahead of print]

The stress of residency: recognizing the signs of depression and suicide in you and your fellow residents.

Hochberg MS, Berman RS, Kalet AL, Zabar SR, Gillespie C, Pachter HL.


Department of Surgery, New York University Medical Center, 550 First Avenue, NBV 15 N1, New York, NY 10016, USA. Electronic address:



Stress, depression, and suicide are universal but frequently unrecognized issues for women and men in residency training. Stress affects cognitive and psychomotor performance both inside and outside of the operating room. Stress impairs the 2 key components of a surgeon’s responsibilities: intellectual judgment and technical skill. We hypothesized that the recognition of depression, substance abuse, failing personal relationships, and potential suicide is poor among surgeons. If residents can recognize the signs of stress, depression, and suicide among colleagues, we believe it will not only improve their quality of life but also may preserve it.


We first determined baseline resident knowledge of the signs of surgical stress including fatigue; burn out; depression; physician suicide; drug and alcohol abuse; and their effects on family, friends, and relationships. We then developed a curriculum to identify these signs in first, second, third, and fourth year surgical residents were identified as the target learners. The major topics discussed were depression; physician suicide; drug and alcohol abuse; and the effects of stress on family, friends, and our goals. Secondary objectives included identifying major sources of stress, general self-awareness, understanding professional choices, and creating a framework to manage stress. Residents participated in an interactive seminar with a surgical facilitator. Before and after the seminar, a multiple-choice test was administered with questions to assess knowledge of the signs of stress (eg, fatigue, burn out, and depression).


Twenty-one residents participated in this study. Seventeen completed the pretest, and 21 participated in the interactive seminar and completed the post-test. The pretest revealed that surgical residents were correct in 46.8% (standard deviation [SD] = 25.4%) of their responses. The postseminar test showed an improvement to 89.7% (SD = 6.1%, P < .001, paired Student t test = 5.37). The same test administered 4 months later to 17 of the 21 learners revealed 76.9% (SD = 18.7%) correct answers, suggesting that the information had been internalized. Cronbach α was calculated to be .67 for the pretest and .76 for the post-test, suggesting a moderate to high degree of internal consistency.


Stress is a significant and regularly overlooked component of a surgeon’s life. Because its effects often go unrecognized, stress frequently remains unresolved. To prevent its associated consequences such as depression, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide, educating house staff about stress is crucial. This study suggests that the symptoms, causes, and treatment of stress among surgeons can be taught effectively to surgical resident learners.


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