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Work pressures contribute to signs of poor mental health in one in three NHS consultants

New research from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology shows high levels of mental stress amongst NHS consultants.

More than a third of NHS consultants in a new study have symptoms of poor mental health as a result of workload and the pressure of their roles which could lead to “burnout”.

The study, conducted by the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck gives an insight into the poor state of mental health endured by medical professionals and says that in turn, these put further pressure on the service due to the impact on staff health, with many showing an intention to seek early retirement.

The authors say senior managers in the NHS and politicians must address the issues to prevent any further difficulties for the healthcare service which already faces serious staff shortages. One possible step forward is to give greater autonomy to consultants – allowing flexibility to manage their workload, apply their minds to problem-solving and tackle more interesting tasks. This could potentially mitigate some of the detrimental effects occurring from high work demands.  

The study looked at 593 consultants in England, Wales and Scotland, including physicians, surgeons, radiologists and psychiatrists. It was conducted by Dr Atir Khan, a consultant with Hywel Dda University Health Board in Wales, Dr Kevin Teoh from Birkbeck, Dr Juliet Hassard from the University of Nottingham and Dr Saiful Islam from Swansea University.

They looked at the various symptoms associated with “burnout” including emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation (psychological withdrawal from relationships and development of negative feelings towards others).

The study found that 39% of the sample were emotionally exhausted and 21% exhibited strong elements of depersonalisation. Additionally, 43% reported a high level of anxiety and 36% had depressive symptoms.

The study says: “Government and healthcare leaders need to consider how future organisational decisions in the NHS may further impact on consultants’ psychosocial work characteristics and, in turn, their work-related well-being. Although the NHS is under increasing demand and financial strain, greater dialogue between consultants, hospital managers and government officials, at both the local and national level, will go some way in influencing how work-related pressure and job autonomy are perceived and managed.”

One of the authors, Dr Kevin Teoh of Birkbeck’s Centre for Sustainable Working Life, said: “These results clearly show that a significant proportion of consultants in the NHS are struggling with their mental health, and if we don’t do anything about this will only make things worse as their mental health could decline further and they are more likely to then retire early. So our data provides support for what many have been discussing anecdotally”.

“What we see here is the impact that poor working conditions have on the mental health of consultants. There needs to be greater emphasis on the recognising and addressing the underlying issues that exist in how work is organised and managed in the NHS. As we see here it’s not just about reducing workload or work-related pressure, but about giving consultants more autonomy in their work.”

The full study, Psychosocial Work Characteristics, Burnout, Psychological Morbidity Symptoms And Early Retirement Intentions: A Cross-Sectional Study Of NHS Consultants In The UK, is published by BMJ Open.

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