Consultants Consider Early Retirement Due to Work Pressures

Peter Russell

January 10, 2019

The health service could face a shortage of senior doctors as new research found that a large proportion of consultants were planning to leave the NHS before they reached retirement age.

A survey by the British Medical Association (BMA) found that around 6 out of 10 consultants intended to retire at or before the age of 60, with more than two-thirds citing difficulties balancing life with work as their reason.

The BMA warned that the situation for the NHS was "untenable" and would jeopardise the Government's recently announced 10 year plan for future health provision.

Dr Rob Harwood, BMA consultants committee chair, said: "During a deepening workforce crisis, the NHS needs its most experienced and expert doctors now more than ever.

"I struggle to understand how the Health Secretary can talk about increasing productivity in hospital care, while allowing the NHS to be a system which perversely encourages its most experienced doctors to do less work and, in some cases, to leave when they do not want to."

The research, based on 4089 responses from hospital consultants in November and December 2018, echoed a recent survey by Medscape UK which found that 32% of doctors polled reported feeling burned out at some stage of their career, while 14% said they were depressed.

Life, Work, and Pensions Concerns

Among consultants considering early retirement, the BMA survey found that 69.7% had problems with work/life balance.

The second most important factor influencing retirement age was concerns about the annual and lifetime pensions allowance regulations, which was mentioned by 55.7% of respondents. This rose to 75.7% of consultants who were planning on bringing forward their retirement, or retire and return.

Only 20% of respondents said they were fully familiar with annual and lifetime allowance regulations, the BMA said, while 38% said they were not sure what those regulations meant for them personally.

The results also showed that:

  • Only 6.5% of consultants expected to remain working after the age of 65

  • Over a third of all respondents expected to reduce their work commitments by up to 50%.

  • Almost 18% were in the process of planning to reduce their working time even further, including a complete withdrawal from service

Salary Issues

An analysis of the figures by the BMA said that "unfair" taxation arrangements were forcing many consultants to cut back on NHS work and retire early.

"This is happening against the backdrop of the derisory new pay settlement for consultants in England – an average weekly uplift of just £6.10 after tax – at a time when they have lost over 24% of take-home pay in the last decade," Dr Harwood said.

The BMA said at a time when the Government had promised personalised care for people with early stage cancer, the prevention of tens of thousands of heart attacks, strokes, and dementia cases, and a 24/7 community-based mental health crisis response, the health service could not afford to lose the skills of senior, experienced doctors.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said: "There are currently record numbers of dedicated NHS consultants working to make sure patients get excellent, safe care and we are supporting them by training 25% more doctors to ensure we have a strong consultant workforce for the future. We are also expanding flexible working opportunities to help staff improve their work-life balance." 

Last December's survey of 968 doctors by Medscape UK found that among those who reported burnout, 52% said they were considering early retirement as a solution, while 37% said they would leave medicine to pursue a different career.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include DHSC comment.

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