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The prevalence and causes of 'burnout' and psychiatric disorder among senior oncologists and palliative care specialists have been measured in a national questionnaire-based survey. All consultant non-surgical oncologists in the UK were asked to participate. Sources of work-related stress and satisfaction were measured using study-specific questions which were aggregated into factors. Psychiatric disorder was estimated using the 12-item General Health Questionnaire. The three components of 'burnout'--emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and low personal accomplishment--were assessed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Three hundred and ninety-three out of 476 (83%) consultants returned their questionnaires. The estimated prevalence of psychiatric disorder in cancer clinicians was 28%, and this is similar to the rate among British junior house officers. The study group had equivalent levels of emotional exhaustion and low personal accomplishment to those found in American doctors and nurses, but lower levels of depersonalisation. Among cancer clinicians, 'burnout' was more prevalent among clinical oncologists than among medical oncologists and palliative care specialists. Psychiatric disorder was independently associated with the stress of feeling overloaded (P < 0.0001), dealing with treatment toxicity/errors (P < 0.004) and deriving little satisfaction from professional status/esteem (P = 0.002). 'Burnout' was also related to these factors, and in addition was associated with high stress and low satisfaction from dealing with patients, and with low satisfaction from having adequate resources (each at a level of P < or = 0.002). Clinicians who felt insufficiently trained in communication and management skills had significantly higher levels of distress than those who felt sufficiently trained. If 'burnout' and psychiatric disorder among cancer clinicians are to be reduced, increased resources will be required to lessen overload and to improve training in communication and management skills.