Eight in 10 doctors and medical students are at high or very high risk of burnout, a new report by the British Medical Association (BMA) reveals – with junior doctors most at risk.
In a survey of more than 4,300 doctors and medical students, just over a quarter have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and four in 10 currently suffer from a broader range of psychological or emotional conditions.
The BMA said the wellbeing of medical professionals is being placed “at enormous risk” as pressure within the profession fuels a serious mental health crisis amongst the workforce.
Dr Thomas Kitchen, an anaesthetist specialist trainee, said there have been many times in his career where he felt his mental health was at risk, but he recalled two specific incidents which had a significant impact.
“The first was around the loss of a colleague and tutor to suicide. The other was around the management of two difficult clinical cases involving the resuscitation of young patients.” The latter pushed him into an episode of depression, he said. “I lost any sense of joy and I was left challenging my identity as a medic.”
The BMA’s survey revealed multiple findings, including worrying levels of burnout, a high prevalence of psychological and emotional conditions, and a concerning number turning to alcohol, drugs or prescribed medication to cope with their condition.
Two in five (40% of) respondents reported currently suffering from a broader range of psychological and emotional conditions. Doctors working the longest weekly hours – 51 or more hours per week – were most likely to say they were having issues.
Meanwhile 90% of respondents said their current working, training or studying environment had contributed to their condition either to a significant or partial extent.
Dr Kitchen, who works at Health Education and Improvement Wales, said he is far from alone in his experiences, and added that there was a broad stigma around disclosure of mental health disorders, suicide, substance misuse and vulnerability within the profession.
“Many doctors and medical students can often feel a deep aversion to ‘failing’ and perhaps can’t even perceive what failure would really mean or look like,” he said, citing the background of those who enter the sector, the system of medical education and the culture of work all as possible factors.
“Sadly, but inevitably in this job, particularly given the current pressures, not everything goes the way you would like or plan, even when you have done everything right. How we manage ourselves in the face of our perceived failings can add a unique pressure on top of already challenging situations.
“We need to be kinder to ourselves.”
Professor Dinesh Bhugra, BMA president and a Professor of Mental Health and Cultural Diversity at Kings College, London, said the report shines a light on the “alarming mental health crisis” among medics. “The link between the current pressures on doctors and poor mental health can no longer be ignored,” he said.
“The findings speak for themselves. With four in 10 of the respondents surveyed currently suffering from depression, anxiety, burnout, stress, emotional distress or another mental health condition, and an overwhelming eight in 10 of those surveyed at high risk of burnout, the enormous demands being placed on doctors have come at a worrying price.”
He said more needs to be done to address the immediate pressures negatively impacting doctors such as long working hours, unmanageable workloads and rota gaps. There also needs to be a wider cultural shift that addresses the stigma that currently stops doctors from seeking help, he said, while ensuring there is support for those who do so.
Prof Bhugra concluded: “A system that fails to support and protect the health of its own workforce will only flounder and this is as clear a call to action if ever there was one.”