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A third of UK doctors could suffer from ‘workplace burnout’

Burnout has been linked to lower standards of patient care

One in three UK doctors working in obstetrics and gynaecology could be suffering from workplace burnout, which could affect their wellbeing and how they treat patients, a study has warned.

The research, published in the journal BMJ Open and led by scientists at Imperial College London, identified burnout as a condition triggered by long-term stress and overload at work. It is associated with emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy and connection with others, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. 

Although burnout can affect individuals in any career, it particularly affects those in those in high-stress jobs, with previous studies suggesting that doctors are twice as likely to suffer burnout compared to those in other professions.

The research used a tool called the Maslach Burnout Inventory to measure burnout on over 3,000 doctors. In addition, the research asked doctors specific questions about their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as how they practice medicine.

The research was carried out on doctors in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology, who are responsible for treating women who are pregnant, delivering babies, as well as treating conditions such as ovarian and cervical cancer.

The study found 36% of doctors met the criteria for burnout. The doctors who met the criteria were six times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, four times more likely to report depression, and three times more likely to report anxiety, irritability and anger. They also suffered from sleep and relationship problems.

The work also revealed that doctors with burnout were four times more likely to practice defensively, meaning a doctor could avoid difficult cases or procedures, overprescribe medications, or carry out more investigations or treatments than necessary for fear of making a mistake or missing a diagnosis.

Previous studies have linked burnout to lower standards of patient care and reduced patient safety.

Professor Tom Bourne, lead author of the research, said the results point to an environment in UK hospitals that makes staff unwell and less able to carry out their jobs safely.

The research team cautioned that people who are suffering from burnout may have been more likely to respond to the survey, which may have affected the result, but equally people experiencing symptoms may have been less inclined to answer questions on the subject.

“Improving our understanding of doctor burnout must become a priority,” said Bourne. “Reducing burnout will improve doctors’ wellbeing with resultant improvements in staff retention, productivity and patient safety.”