Majority of UK doctors are burnt out, study shows

More than half of UK doctors are suffering from burnout, figures show - with work stress found to be a leading cause of alcohol dependence and substance abuse across the medical profession.

Most doctors 'meet criteria for burnout' (Photo: sturti/Getty Imagas)
Most doctors 'meet criteria for burnout' (Photo: sturti/Getty Imagas)

According to research published today in BMJ Open, 55% of 417 UK doctors (75 of whom were GPs) ‘meet the criteria’ for burnout and emotional exhaustion - raising concerns over patient safety.

The study - conducted by Birkbeck, University of London, and University College London (UCL) - also found that one in 20 doctors (5%) are ‘alcohol dependent’, with more than a third admitting to drinking alcohol ‘to cope with work-related stress’. Overall, one in five (22%) said they used ‘substances’ (alcohol or drugs) as a ‘stress coping strategy’.

However, GPs were significantly less likely to binge drink than their hospital colleagues, whose risk of excessive drinking on a ‘typical’ day was nearly twice that of doctors who worked in ‘community settings’.

Patient safety

Other common health implications of burnout included insomnia - which affected 12% of participants - binge eating (8%), upset stomach or nausea (19%), headaches (27%), backache (33%) and dizziness (8%).

The authors said the findings raise concerns not only over the health of NHS workers but also over the quality of care doctors can provide to patients.

‘This study has revealed that occupational distress also increases the risk of doctors suffering from health problems. The impact of occupational distress on ill health could increase levels of sickness-absence among doctors, thus reducing patient safety because of understaffing,’ the report reads.

Health implications

‘Likewise, the impact of occupational distress on substance use and sleep problems could mean that distress indirectly impairs doctors’ fitness to practise, judgment or decision-making because of being intoxicated, hungover or having disturbed sleep.’

Study co-author Dr Caroline Kamau said: ‘Our research shows that 55% of doctors have burnout and this has real health consequences. Doctors are not to blame for having burnout. It is a normal, human reaction to external stressors so doctors must not be stigmatised. What we need is for the NHS to solve the causes of burnout and prevent it from harming the health of our doctors.’

Co-author Dr Asta Medisauskaite added: ‘Work-related stress is often ignored as not being a priority but our research shows that stress among doctors is associated with health problems and risky health behaviours like alcohol use. Stress can no longer be ignored because it can lead to doctors suffering severe health problems and losing even one doctor is a great loss for the NHS.’

GP burnout

The study comes less than a month after GPonline reported that more than one in 20 GPs had sought help from the GP Health Service, a specialist NHS mental health service, since its inception two and a half years ago.

Speaking at the time, Lucy Warner - chief executive of the GP Health Service and the NHS Practitioner Health Programme - said: ‘We would encourage all doctors to seek help through mainstream NHS routes if they are able to, but the GP Health Service exists for that cohort who cannot or do not feel able to access confidential care appropriate to their needs and who may need more specialist support from a team who understands the professional or regulatory issues doctors face.’

A recent BMA survey also found that 90% of GPs faced a ‘high risk’ of burnout. Addressing the figures, GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'This is why the additional funding and expanded workforce plans committed in the GP contract changes cannot come quickly enough, and which should start to take some of the pressure off GPs and their teams, and by doing so start to turn around the current unacceptable situation.’

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