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The increasing level of burnout amongst doctors is extremely troubling. Medical Protection is calling for organisation wide interventions to safeguard the wellbeing of doctors.

It is perhaps one of the great paradoxes of our age, that modern medicine allows doctors to do more for their patients than ever before, yet mounting evidence shows that doctors feel stressed and burnt out in ever greater numbers. This development is extremely troubling.  As a medical defence organisation, we see first-hand the consequences of when things have gone too far, and when members can no longer cope.

Through our “Breaking the burnout cycle: keeping doctors and patients safe” campaign – Medical Protection is making a range of policy recommendations that, if taken seriously, would help to improve the mental health and wellbeing of doctors and mitigate the risks of burnout in the profession.

What our members tell us

In June 2019, we surveyed Medical Protection members in Ireland. They told us loud and clear about the impact their work is having on their wellbeing, and this has helped us enormously in shaping our policy recommendations.

Amongst other things, they told us:

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Happy doctors, safer care

When doctors feel burnt out and disillusioned it is not only bad for the doctors concerned but also for patients and the wider healthcare team. 

Happy and engaged doctors will find it easier to be compassionate and provide safer care – which of course will come as little surprise. It is not surprising therefore, that wellness of doctors is increasingly proposed as a quality indicator in healthcare delivery.

A growing global concern

New reports are published regularly which show increasing problems with doctors’ health and wellbeing and of healthcare professional leaving practice prematurely. The causes of the current crisis have been widely debated and include the growing demands and complexity of the job, a faster pace of work and tighter financial constraints.

But burnout among doctors is not unique to Ireland, to doctors working in the NHE or to any one specialty. It is a widespread and global phenomenon which can affect all clinicians. Burnout is high among doctors around the world, and the overall evidence suggests that many doctors worldwide will experience burnout in their careers, that burnout rates are rising and that they have reached an epidemic level.

An occupational hazard

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently recognised burnout as a syndrome brought about by chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. They are about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing in the workplace. We welcome this effort. Burnout is a widely used term and a common condition in modern day society, but it is often poorly understood and therefore not always treated effectively. It is often not taken seriously by employers, by policy makers, nor by the wider public.

Burnout is characterised by mental, physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, increased detachment and a decline in professional satisfaction caused by multiple factors.

These contributing factors can exist at a personal, team and wider system level. The condition is an occupational hazard that occurs frequently among professionals who do “people work” of some kind.

Recognising and preventing burnout

Christina Maslach, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, proposes six areas of work. This methodology was originally constructed with the goal to assess an individual’s experience of burnout and is based on employees’ interaction with people at work. 

She identified the following areas of work life:

Workload

Control

Reward

Community

Fairness

Values

Identifying concerns within some, or all, of the six areas of work, offers a framework to diagnose and resolve difficulties creating burnout for individuals and teams.

Indeed, the difficulties within the six areas of work identified by Maslach came through clearly in members’ responses to the survey.

We are keen to help improve members’ relationship with each of the six areas of work through individual, team and systemic changes. Members responded to tell us the extent to which their needs in each of these areas are being met. We also looked at three specific issues related to those areas; presenteeism, incivility at work, and wellbeing oversight in the workplace.

An in-depth analysis of the survey results and our members’ experience against those areas can be found in our policy report.

Role of Medical Protection

Healthcare leaders, managers and peers are all responsible for identifying signs of burnout in themselves and others and in working together to develop strategies to enhance personal resilience.

Medical Protection also has a role to play. It is vital that we listen to and care for members and are proud of the work we do to support those dealing with burnout.

We will continue to provide valuable support to doctors dealing with burnout. But while support is invaluable, it is only part of the solution. The focus should not solely be on interventions that help the individual doctors to cope with their work environment. A move towards prevention is needed with much more emphasis placed on the improvement of underlying working conditions that impact on the wellbeing of clinicians.

Alongside other organisations, we must seek a commitment from healthcare providers and government to improve the working environment for all practitioners and to truly begin to tackle the endemic of burnout in healthcare.  Only with organisational interventions can the wellbeing of doctors be safeguarded.

Get involved

As explained above, through our “Breaking the burnout cycle: keeping doctors and patients safe” campaign – Medical Protection is making a range of policy recommendations that, if taken seriously, would help to improve the mental health and wellbeing of doctors and mitigate the risks of burnout in the profession.

You can get involved by helping create awareness of the need for change and the Breaking the burnout cycle campaign. We have prepared some resources to help make getting involved easy.

Read about our proposals

For full information on the policy recommendations that we are making read the policy document PDF linked below.

Join the conversation on social media

We need your help to raise awareness of the Breaking the burnout cycle campaign and its aims. To help you we have made some of the content easily shareable.

You can join the conversation online by following and using #BreakingBurnout on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and share the content below on your preferred social platform.