The news of burned out doctors is hitting the headlines daily.
Doctors are leaving the NHS for a wide range of reasons but burn out is cited as high on the list. A survey carried out by the BMA in 2022; found that levels of workplace burnout are completely unprecedented within the history of the NHS. Burned out doctors are exhausted and suffering from physical stress and mental health issues. These pressures pose a risk to their own health as well as the health of their patients. For many this situation is untenable.
What is burn out?
Burn out is a state of complete emotional, physical and mental collapse caused by too much pressure in the workplace. This condition is serious for the sufferer in any walk of life but for the medical professional it is a disaster.
In medicine where life and death decisions are commonplace, burned out doctors are extremely bad news for patients. The condition often leads to the burned out doctor making mistakes, depersonalisation of the patients and a cynical attitude to the role where nothing seems important any more.
Burn out is a serious problem for the doctor’s personal wellbeing but it is important to remember that this doesn’t happen overnight.
What are the early signs of burnout?
It is important to recognise the early signs of burn out. Symptoms include:
- Feeling exhausted all of the time
- Irritability and frustration with colleagues
- Compassion fatigue; developing a cynical, depersonalised attitude to the job
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased consumption of alcohol and substance misuse
- Changes in behaviour
- Mistakes at work
- Anxiety before shifts
- Withdrawal from others and activities you previously enjoyed
Which doctors are at the highest risk of burn out?
GPs are a high risk category. According to research, British family doctors have the highest stress levels and lowest job satisfaction among doctors in Europe. Also at high risk are junior doctors working in A&E and Intensive care.
However, all doctors in the NHS are at risk of burn out so just working in the NHS can come at a cost to your physical and mental health!
It is important to remember that nobody enters this profession expecting an easy ride and stress is all part of the job. However, with the difficulties faced by the NHS including issues such as the huge back log of treatment caused by COVID; the current demands upon doctors are causing greater stress than ever before.
How to avoid becoming a burned out doctor; prevention is better than cure
If you suspect you may be heading for burn out it is important to recognise that you have a problem. Preventing burn-out in the first place is a better alternative than trying to recover from it. Taking steps to reduce work pressure by putting yourself first will help. Don’t ever feel guilty for thinking of your own wellbeing over the needs of your team or your patients.
How burnout is affecting the NHS
One option for burned out doctors is to leave the NHS and move abroad where life may be easier and better paid.
Record numbers of NHS doctors are taking up roles in countries such as Ireland, Australia, Canada and the UAE. The opportunity to be able to do your job with less stress is causing even senior middle aged consultants to move to countries where the stress levels are lower and the salaries are higher.
This may sound desirable for younger doctors with fewer ties but for doctors with families and roots in the UK, is not a decision to be taken lightly.
This exodus of highly qualified staff adds to the problem for doctors opting to remain in the NHS and is exacerbating the crisis. For those that wish to remain in the UK, it is not always as easy. Many burned out doctors are opting to leave medicine completely and are taking up new careers away from the medical profession.
Tips to preventing burn out as a doctor
Reducing your stress and your workload is paramount to reducing doctor burnout. Here are a few tips that may help.
Self-awareness. Doctors are notoriously bad at demonstrating self-compassion! Being aware and reflective is helpful in work and outside it. Pause, take stock and reflect. Having a realistic view of what is achievable and an awareness of what is causing you to feel the way you do. Consider whether there’s any immediate changes you can make that would make your life feel slightly easier.
Talk about it. Discussing how you feel with work colleagues can help to make others aware and bring some perspective to your situation. Gain support through friends and family to try and find necessary out-of-work distractions needed to overcome the challenges you’re facing at work.
Just say no! It is important to realise that you have limits to what you can do. Say ‘no’ to extra shifts for example. You are not responsible for the shortcomings within the NHS and pushing yourself far beyond your limits is dangerous to you and your patients. Acquiring assertiveness skills can take a little practice if you’re the type who is always offer availability to support others. If you need some help in learning this skill, buy a book on techniques you can implement or try a short, online course.
Time management and goal setting. In particular, managing your time to make space for time off and recharging. Aiming towards an improved work/life balance may need planning and effort to make it happen. Clarifying your values by knowing what life you want to lead can help your resolve.
Make self-care a priority
Consciously making changes to your lifestyle. Practising all the things that you likely tell your patients to do! Just start with the basics. Eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated and taking regular exercise is paramount for your wellbeing. Try, at least, to make small, manageable adjustments if you know you need to make improvements. For example, just 10-15 minutes of walking in the fresh air can you help to think more clearly and change your environment if only for a brief time.
Practice mindfulness. There is a wealth of evidence to support the benefits of mindfulness. Simple techniques can reduce your work stress levels and keep you more grounded. Mindfulness exercises such as deep breathing can help throughout the day. Using mindfulness techniques for sleeping can help too. Check out a mindfulness course or app you can download on your phone.
Seek support. If you need further support, contact one of the many organisations in place such as Doctors in Distress, Doctors Support Network, or Doctors Help. Don’t suffer in silence – there is some great support out there for doctors who are struggling with their mental health.
Check out your career options
If you are a burned out doctor and know that you cannot continue, it may be time for a change. Check out your career options and consider doing something different. There are plenty of non-clinical roles for doctors that may be a good choice. Alternatively becoming a solopreneur and balancing this with reduced working hours may help your work life balance.
Get in touch with me if you’d like to discuss a coaching package in Resilience or Career coaching sessions.