Exclusive One in 11 GPs has taken time off work due to stress or burnout within the past 12 months, and as many as a third expect to do so within the coming year, according to a Pulse survey that lays bare for the first time the impact of GP burnout on the wider NHS.
It comes as the Practitioner Health Programme, the largest service in Europe for doctors with health concerns, revealed the number of new doctors and dentists seeking help has more than tripled in the past four years.
Asked whether stress or burnout was affecting their ability to work, some 9.3% of the 688 GP respondents to Pulse’s mutli-topic survey said they had had to take time off within the past 12 months. A further 32.5% said they had not taken time off but thought it was likely that they might need to in the coming year. The remaining 58.2% said they had not had to take time off work and did not expect to.
The findings comes as part of Pulse’s Battling Burnout campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the problem and lobby for better monitoring of GP workload and better occupational health support for those who need it. A separate Pulse assessment earlier in the year of almost 1,800 GPs using the validated Maslach Burnout Inventory tool found that 43% are classified as being at a very high risk of developing burnout, with partners and those working in deprived areas particularly badly hit.
Professor Clare Gerada, the immediate past chair of the RCGP and new medical director of NHS London’s Practitioner Health Programme (PHP), said the programme was now supporting between nine and 11 new doctors or dentists each week, compared with around three new practitioners a week four years ago.
Professor Gerada told Pulse: ‘The two groups we have most contact with are GPs and A&E doctors. The increase is partly because more people know about us, but there is certainly an increase in illness levels as well. The word burnout is used to describe this but I don’t like the term, because it’s actually depression given a more acceptable label.’
She said a number of factors were to blame for doctors’ plummeting morale over the past year.
‘Change always produces anxiety, but we are also seeing the denigration of NHS staff in the media, where we are being blamed even though most of us are trying to do a good job,’ she said. ‘It feels like GPs are seen as both scapegoats and messiahs. People want us to save the NHS through commissioning, but they also blame us for the problems.
‘My message would be to hang in there, because things can only get better.’
Today’s findings follow a GPC survey published in September, in which a huge majority of GPs reported they were battling excessive bureaucracy, facing a shortage of resources and suffering from low morale. Some 94% of GPs said they had experienced an increased workload since the imposition of the 2013 GP contract in April.
GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said that the 40% reduction in QOF points agreed for the 2014 GP contract was a ‘step in the right direction’ in reducing GPs’ stress levels, but added: ‘Nobody should be under the misapprehension that this will make a major difference. Most of all we need additional resources so that we can take on more GPs and nurses to meet the patient demand.’
Survey findings in full
Have you had to take any time off work for stress or burnout within the past 12 months?
Total number of respondents: 688 GPs
No, and I do not expect to: 400 (58.2%)
No, but I think it is likely I may need to in the next 12 months: 224 (32.5%)
Yes: 64 (9.3%)
About the survey
Pulse launched this survey of readers on 15 October, collating responses using the SurveyMonkey tool. The 26 questions asked covered a wide range of GP topics, to avoid selection bias on any one issue. The survey was advertised to readers via our website and email newsletters, with a prize draw for a Samsung Tab 2 tablet as an incentive to complete the survey.
As part of the survey, respondents were asked to specify their job title. A small number of non-GPs were screened out to analyse the results for this question. GPs were also asked on a voluntary basis to provide their GMC number and the majority did so, although these were not verified or used to screen out respondents.