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Work stress turns doctors to alcohol and binge-eating

A Birkbeck-UCL study shows 1 in 20 doctors are alcohol dependent and nearly 1 in 10 have a binge-eating disorder.

New research from Birkbeck's Department of Organizational Psychology and UCL shows that 1 in 20 doctors (5%) are alcohol dependent and just over half (53%) drink two or more times a week. Work stress was found to be a factor in doctors abusing alcohol or having alcohol dependence, with just over a third (34%) of doctors saying that they drink alcohol to cope with work related stress, and around 1 in 5 (22%) using substances to get through stressful events.

The study revealed that doctors who rely on substances to cope with stress are 18 times more likely to drink alcohol 2-3 times or more a week and 3 times more likely to binge-drink on a typical drinking day.

Doctors who work in hospitals were found to be nearly twice at risk of binge-drinking on a typical drinking day than doctors who work in community or other settings.

The findings come as part of a larger study led by UCL's Dr Asta Medisauskaite and Birkbeck's Dr Caroline Kamau, which looked at the effects of work-related stress on doctors’ health.

The study revealed that 55% of doctors meet the criteria for burnout. The study found that work stress is giving doctors sleepless nights, with burnout nearly doubling the risk of insomnia. Overall 12% of doctors were found to have insomnia. Work stress was also found to increase the risk of doctors suffering ill health with work-life imbalance nearly doubling the risk of doctors experiencing frequent diarrhoea.

Whereas the prevalence of alcohol use and dependence among doctors is lower than the general population average, the study found that more doctors (8%) have a binge-eating disorder compared to the UK population average (3%). 1 in 3 doctors have binge-eating symptoms, and 1 in 3 doctors reported feeling embarrassed, depressed or disgusted with their overeating.

Dr Kamau said: “Our research shows that 55% of doctors have burnout and this has real health consequences. Doctors are not to blame for having burnout. It is a normal, human reaction to external stressors so doctors must not be stigmatised. What we need is for the NHS to solve the causes of burnout and prevent it from harming the health of our doctors.”

Dr Medisauskaite said: “Work-related stress is often ignored as not being a priority but our research shows that stress among doctors is associated with health problems and risky health behaviours like alcohol use. Stress can no longer be ignored because it can lead to doctors suffering severe health problems and losing even one doctor is a great loss for the NHS.”

The study surveyed 417 UK medical doctors with an average age of 47 years. 49% of the doctors were consultant-grade, 18% are GPs and 20% are junior doctors. The study is part of a randomized controlled trial that led the researchers to develop a smart-phone app together with Focus Games, called Working Stress. The app is being trialled in over 10 NHS Trusts.

The research is published in BMJ Open

Further Information

Dr Caroline Kamau currently convenes the following modules:

  • Group Processes in Organizations
  • Psychopathology and the Business Environment