Purpose - This paper aims to determine the extent of work satisfaction among general practitioners and to examine the variables influencing the different aspects of their work satisfaction. Design/methodology/approach - This was a cross-sectional survey of general practitioners in the private sector, conducted throughout South Africa, using a self-administered questionnaire. Univariate statistical models were used to evaluate levels of satisfaction with various facets of work, while inferences about the effect of several independent variables on the work satisfaction facets were drawn from multiple regression models using a stepwise regression procedure. Findings - Doctors were satisfied with the social and personal aspects of their work and dissatisfied with the practice environment pressures and work setting issues. Overall, doctors were dissatisfied with their work and their careers. Being female, working in large groups, having been in practice for 20 years or more, having a high proportion of insured patients and being incentivised to conserve resources were significant predictors of lower overall satisfaction. Clinical freedom, positive perceptions of managed care strategies, remuneration on a fee-for-service basis and working in small groups were predictors of greater overall satisfaction. Originality/value - The paper shows that, although doctors were generally dissatisfied, there are opportunities for enhancing work satisfaction and care provision if policymakers, administrators and health care managers work in collaboration with doctors to provide the specific working conditions that health professionals desire. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.