Professional quality of life and burnout among medical physicists working in radiation oncology: The role of alexithymia and empathy

Marialaura Di Tella, Valentina Tesio, Jenny Bertholet, Anne Gasnier, Elisabet Gonzalez Del Portillo, Mateusz Spalek, Jean-Emmanuel Bibault, Gerben Borst, Wouter Van Elmpt, Daniela Thorwarth, Laura Mullaney, Kathrine Røe Redalen, Ludwig Dubois, Cyrus Chargari, Sophie Perryck, Steven Petit, Myriam Lybeer, Lorys Castelli, Pierfrancesco Franco*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background and purpose: The professional quality of life of radiation oncology professionals can be influenced by different contributing factors, including personality traits. Alexithymia involves deficits in emotion processing and awareness. Empathy is the ability to understand another's 'state of mind/emotion'. We investigated professional quality of life, including burnout, in radiation oncology, exploring the role of alexithymia and empathy and targeting the population of medical physicists (MPs), since this professional category is usually underrepresented in surveys exploring professional well-being in radiation oncology and MPs may experience professional distress given the increasing complexity of multimodal cancer care.

Material and methods: An online survey was addressed to ESTRO members. Participants filled out three questionnaires to evaluate alexithymia, empathy and professional quality of life: a) Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20); b) Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI); c) Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQoL). Professional quality of life as per ProQoL was considered as dependent variable. The three domains of the ProQoL, namely compassion satisfaction (CS), secondary traumatic stress (STS) and burnout were correlated with alexithymia (as per TAS-20) and empathy (as per IRI with three subcategories: empathic concern, perspective taking and personal distress) and demographic/professional characteristics as independent variables. Generalized linear modeling was used. Significant covariates on univariate linear regression analysis were included in the multivariate linear regression model.

Results: A total of 308 medical physicists completed all questionnaires. Alexithymia as per TAS-20 was correlated to decreased CS (β = -0.25, p < 0 0.001), increased likelihood for STS (β = 0.26, p < 0 0.001) and burnout (β = 0.47, p < 0 0.001). With respect to empathy, the 'Empatic Concern' subscale of the IRI was found to be a significant predictor for increased CS (β = 0.19, p = 0 0.001) and increased STS (β = 0.19, p < 0 0.001), without significant correlation with burnout. The individual's perception of being valued by own's supervisor was correlated to increased CS (β = 0.23, p < 0.001), and decreased burnout (β = -0.29, p < 0.001).

Conclusions: Alexithymic personality trait increased the likelihood to develop burnout, with less professional satisfaction amongst MPs working in radiation oncology. Empathy results in higher professional fulfilment. These results may be used to benchmark preventing strategies, including peer support, debriefing sessions, leadership initiatives and work-load limitation strategies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-43
Number of pages6
JournalPhysics & Imaging in Radiation Oncology
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • Burnout
  • Professional quality of life
  • Empathy
  • Personality
  • Radiation oncology professionals
  • Medical physicist
  • Medical physics

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