Many cancer doctors suffering burnout, stress, depression and using alcohol to cope

Review authors call for more supportive interventions such as peer and mentor support

A review carried out by researchers in Birkbeck's Department of Organizational Psychology has found that alarming numbers of cancer doctors are suffering from high levels of burnout, stress, sleep problems, depression, physical symptoms of stress such as gastric problems, and some are resorting to alcohol in order to cope.

Working in oncology (cancer care) involves making difficult decisions, watching patients suffering from cancer or treatment side effects, and having a heavy workload because of the urgency of cancer diagnosis and rising patient numbers. Working under stressful conditions can cause mental and physical distress.

A review of published articles measuring occupational health problems in oncology doctors, carried out by Asta Medisauskaite and Dr Caroline Kamau and published in the journal Psycho-Oncology on 17 February 2017, showed that:

  • 32% of cancer doctors have a high level of burnout
  • 27% of cancer doctors have psychiatric morbidity (psychological impairment reflecting somatic symptoms, anxiety, depression, insomnia and social dysfunction)
  • Up to 69% of cancer doctors feel stressed at work
  • Up to 51% of cancer doctors screen positive for depression
  • Up to 44% of cancer doctors have sleep problems
  • Up to 30% of cancer doctors drink alcohol in a problematic way
  • Up to 20% of junior cancer doctors use hypnotic drugs
  • Some cancer doctors also frequently experience stress-induced health complaints such as ulcers, gastric problems, headaches and arrhythmia.

The review authors commented, “Occupational distress reduces career satisfaction, affects patient care and increases the chances of cancer doctors switching to another area of medicine. We want to highlight that improving workload and support for oncologists could improve patient care, reduce talent loss from the field of oncology and could ultimately impact clinical outcomes for cancer patients.”

The authors added, “Occupational distress is a normal, human reaction to external factors such as a higher workload and it should not be stigmatised in medical practice. We hope that both senior and junior cancer doctors will consider supportive interventions such as peer and mentor support.”

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