Exclusive: One in eight GPs have sought help from pastoral or wellbeing services within the past year, according to a new Pulse survey which suggests the profession is struggling to cope with a rising workload and an increasing risk of burnout.
Some 12% of 441 GPs surveyed about a wide range of unrelated topics said they had sought help from local pastoral or wellbeing services in the past 12 months, with one GP spending almost £2,000 on private psychotherapy after finding it difficult to handle his workload.
The findings prompted GP leaders to urge those struggling with stress to ‘pull down their oxygen mask’ and ask for help.
Respondents to the survey blamed Government policy and changes to the GP contract as significant factors in exacerbating their difficulties. Many also said the pastoral services they had accessed had been effective at helping them cope.
The results come as the NHS in England reviews whether to continue funding these services for GPs, as part of a wider review of ‘discretionary’ funding formerly supplied by PCTs. Pulse’s Battling Burnout campaign is lobbying for much more consistent occupational health support funded by the taxpayer to be available to GPs nationwide, and today Pulse is launching the next phase of that campaign, asking GPs to write to their MP to alert them to the problem of GP burnout and its implications for the profession.
Dr Tony Grewal, medical director of Londonwide LMCs, said it was a good thing that GPs were seeking help, but warned that the high numbers reflected the extra pressure many are under.
He said: ‘If a company had one in eight people seeking help you would certainly question their human resources policies. But that won’t happen for GPs because we are independent contractors.’
‘No-one goes into general practice to become super-rich, but now GPs feel they have to run harder and harder just to stand still.’
RCGP chair Professor Clare Gerada said that GPs in difficulty should ‘pull down their oxygen mask’ and ask for help. She suggested joining a Balint Group,where GPs talk about their emotional challenges.
She said: ‘It can help to meet with your peers. It can help develop resilience in times of adversity. Workload is incredible at the moment and that can bring isolation and illness.’
One of the respondents to the survey, Cornwall-based GP Dr Paul Travis, said he had recently decided to quit general practice after spending about £1,700 on psychotherapy sessions over the last nine months.
He said: ‘It had been coming for a long time, and eventually it got to me. I took a six-week sabbatical and then came back, but it was just as bad. Things have gone too far and there is no way back.’
Another GP who asked not to be named said her experience of seeking help from wellbeing services was beneficial.
She added: ‘It was good, but hard to do. The feeling of failure was hard to deal with.’
A Pulse survey of 1,800 GPs using the validated Maslach Burnout Inventory showed in May that 46% of GPs are at high risk of burnout, a result that was covered by the national press.
Have you sought help from pastoral or wellbeing services in the past 12 months?
Yes – 55 (12%)
No – 380 (86%)
Don’t know – 6 (2%)
If yes, how was this experience?
‘Good - I saw a CBT expert’
‘Almost soul destroying actually - I feel weak and am demoralised by how we are portrayed in the press’
‘Overall, dreadful, but no worse than expected!’
‘Good but hard to do, feeling of failure was hard to deal with’
‘Excellent- but it was a private service, not related to BMA/NHS etc’
‘Poor. My employers have been unbelievably unsupportive.’
*Survey of 441 GPs run on the Pulse website in June. Respondents volunteered to take part in a survey covering a wide variety of topics and were required to complete the survey and leave their email address to be entered into a prize draw for an Amazon Kindle. If you wish to take part in forthcoming surveys then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out how you can get involved in the next stage of Pulse’s Battling Burnout campaign and write to you MP. Click here to find out more
Please note: This article was updated with new figures that showed 46% were at a high risk of burnout, rather than 43% as previously stated.