COVID-19 Causes Rising Burnout Intensity in UK Doctors

Tim Locke

November 02, 2020

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Medscape UK's latest online survey of more than 1000 doctors highlights how working through COVID-19 has impacted their mental health and personal lives.

The number of doctors reporting burnout increased to 37% this year from 22% when we last asked in 2018.

"This latest survey absolutely aligns with what the Doctors' Association UK is hearing from members," commented Dr Natalie Ashburner, wellbeing lead for the Doctors' Association UK (DAUK).

"NHS staff were already suffering from high rates of burnout and mental illness in the context of a decade of chronic underfunding of services, lack of staff, and erosion of pay and working conditions."

Danger Pay

More than half of doctors thought overtime or danger pay would be appropriate. Instead, most doctors in England got a 2.8% pay rise said to be in recognition of frontline work, but described as "a metaphorical slap in the face" by the British Medical Association.

As well as burnout, nearly 1 in 5 doctors said they were clinically depressed.

"COVID-19 has drastically exacerbated these pre-existing issues and the result is that dedicated, highly skilled staff have been pushed to the point at which they are unable to cope any longer," Dr Ashburner said.

Second Wave

Thirty-six percent worked longer hours during  the pandemic's first wave.

"The same staff who worked on the front lines during the first wave of the pandemic, many of whom have been traumatised by the experience, are now tackling the second wave.

"We cannot place insurmountable pressure on staff who are suffering from psychological distress, at high risk of mental illness and just expect them to cope."

Clap for Carers

Nearly 7 in 10 doctors said 'Clap for Carers' did not boost morale in the long term.

"Whilst the 'Clap for Carers' was appreciated, it did little more than paper over the cracks when the true causes of low morale in the NHS run much deeper," Dr Ashburner said. 

Most doctors experiencing burnout/depression were not planning to seek help and 30% were not aware of workplace help programmes.

Dr Ashburner commented: "Prioritising the wellbeing of NHS staff must be at the forefront of the action plan to tackle the second wave of this pandemic.

"Adequate and effective equipment, sufficient numbers of well rested and supported staff and appropriate remuneration for their work are essential."

Among burned out doctors, 47% were considering early retirement. "The NHS is haemorrhaging staff; without addressing this and without also achieving parity of esteem for mental health services, we risk not having a workforce left to care for us," Dr Ashburner told us.

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