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One third of UK doctors may suffer from workplace ’burnout’

News 26 November 2019

One in three obstetricians and gynaecologists may suffer from workplace burnout, which could affect their wellbeing and how they treat patients, finds new research by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and Imperial College London published today.

The research, which is the largest UK study on this topic, involved a survey of over 3,000 doctors.

It found that 36% of obstetricians and gynaecologists met the criteria for burnout and 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.

Obstetricians and gynaecologists with burnout were four times more likely to practice ‘defensively’ – meaning a doctor may avoid difficult cases or procedures, over prescribe medications, or carry out more investigations or treatments than necessary, for fear of making a mistake or missing a diagnosis.

The study, a collaboration between RCOG, Imperial College London, and KU Leuven in Belgium, is published in the journal BMJ Open.

 Professor Tom Bourne, lead author of the research from Imperial College London, said: 

“We found the results of this survey very worrying. The level of burnout were high, particularly amongst younger doctors. This has serious implications for patients, as we know burnout reduces patient satisfaction, safety and standards of care.

“These results point to an environment in UK hospitals that makes staff unwell and less able to carry out their jobs safely. There is a clear need to address both the workplace and culture.

“Improving our understanding of doctor burnout must become a priority. Reducing burnout will improve doctors’ wellbeing with resultant improvements in staff retention, productivity and patient safety. The report adds critical evidence to the recent review into Doctors Wellbeing published a week ago by the General Medical Council in the UK.

“The solutions lie in improving the environment doctors work in, and relate to reducing workload, rebuilding supportive teams, compassionate leadership, improving the values and culture of hospitals, and giving doctors more autonomy and fairness”.  

Dr Alison Wright, Vice President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said:

“The potential impact of workforce burnout is crucial to our national health service and to patient care. This important study provides compelling evidence that there is an urgent need to improve the workplace environment for doctors. We know burnout is associated with worse outcomes for patients, as well as a lack of empathy and rapport. It is vital the issue of burnout is addressed, so we can sustainably deliver the very best care for our patients.

“A key priority for the RCOG is to ensure the obstetrics and gynaecology workforce is properly supported. We have established a ‘Supporting our Doctors’ task Group, which includes a ‘peer to peer’ support service and a network of workforce champions to provide pastoral and practical support to doctors and employers.

“This task group advocates for the changes that need to be made to minimise burnout and attrition. These include all clinicians having acceptable working patterns, for their workload to be controlled, for adequate peer and senior support within teams and for leadership in hospitals to be more compassionate. This will require a real change in culture.

“The RCOG is collaborating with other Colleges, the GMC and government organisations, to understand and address the systemic issues which are associated with burnout so we can, both improve the wellbeing of doctors and the care we provide for women and their families.”

Note to Editors

For media enquiries, please contact the RCOG press office on +44 (0)20 7045 6773 or email pressoffice@rcog.org.uk

‘Burnout, well-being and defensive medical practice among obstetricians and gynaecologists in the UK: cross-sectional survey study’ is published in BMJ Open.

RCOG Supporting our Doctors
An overwhelming majority of those working in obstetrics and gynaecology (O&G) find it a stimulating and rewarding career. However, we understand that it can sometimes come with its challenges. Supporting the O&G workforce and ensuring doctors are equipped and supported to deliver the highest levels of care to women and girls is a key strategic priority for the RCOG. For more information, visit Supporting our Doctors.