The 10th to the 16th of May 2021 is the UK’s national Mental Health Awareness Week. This initiative is to raise public awareness of mental well-being, mental health issues, and to encourage the public to come together to help support those that are struggling. This year, the mental health of doctors and healthcare professionals has been brought to the attention of the public because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At Remedium, we have championed the mental wellbeing of doctors and other healthcare professionals since we first opened our doors. For us, protecting the mental and emotional health of the UK’s GPs, psychiatrists, surgeons, paediatricians, A&E doctors, and every other kind of doctor has always a core value.
The NHS workforce made enormous contributions to bringing the UK where we are now with lockdown restrictions lifting and infection rates low. We have previously written on doctors contribution to the highly successful UK Covid-19 vaccination rollout, as well as the increases in low mental wellbeing amongst NHS doctors during the pandemic.
As part of Mental Health Week, we at Remedium are doing our part to ensure that these contributions and their emotional impact don’t go unnoticed. Every week we’re engaged in conversations with both clients and candidates about ways to improve the emotional wellbeing of NHS doctors. For Mental Health Week 2021 we’re going to break down some doctors mental health statistics, what steps can be taken to mitigate NHS doctor burnout, and how we at Remedium have started initiatives like Healing Our Healers to ensure doctors know they never have to struggle alone.
Mental Health in the UK Healthcare Profession
Being a doctor, nurse, allied health professional, carer, or any other profession under the healthcare banner comes with unique stress and challenges. Every talented healthcare professional currently working in the UK knew this when they took up their vocation. However, sometimes no amount of emotional preparation is enough to keep mental health concerns at bay throughout your career. Even the most seasoned and resilient doctors experience phases of struggling with mental wellbeing.
Even before the pandemic, diagnosable mental health concerns amongst UK healthcare professionals were relatively common. Pre-Covid in 2019, staff sickness rates in the NHS were above average. The main cause for FTE days was ‘anxiety/stress/depression’ and ‘other psychiatric illnesses’. Absence due to poor mental wellbeing accounted for 24.7% of all sick days. This compares with the national average of 12.4% in the same year period.
Doctors are particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns. Staying in the 2018/2019 period, a BMA survey of doctors at the time found that 40% were ‘currently suffering from a broader range of psychological and emotional conditions‘. During and since the Covid-19 pandemic this figure has increased exponentially, with as many as two-thirds of doctors currently suffering from anxiety or depression.
The current mental wellbeing of UK doctors
The NHS is currently facing a workforce mental health crisis. This is understandable given the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rates of mental health concerns were above usual levels across the UK throughout the pandemic for many reasons. As we’ve seen, those who heal the public during times of mental wellbeing crisis are just as vulnerable to going them themselves.
In a BMA survey in February 2021, over 40% of doctors surveyed felt their mental health had worsened during the pandemic. Whilst more recent figures show some signs of improvement (just over 13.5% reported feeling slightly or significantly better than they did during the first wave of Covid-19), the toll on the wellbeing of doctors as a profession is clear. The February study reported that over 30% of doctors still felt as anxious as in March 2020, and over 51% reported feeling slightly or much worse.
The fact that the mental and emotional health and wellbeing of doctors need to be a focal point of NHS policy post-pandemic is undisputed. Pandemic burnout is being reported across the NHS. To understand how we can take steps to change the situation, however, we must also understand what is causing such a prevalence of anxiety, depression, and other conditions amongst the UK’s physician community.
Why doctors are vulnerable to poor mental health
There are a number of reasons potentially as many as two-thirds of doctors are struggling with anxiety or depression. In 2021 many of these will no doubt be caused or exacerbated by working on the NHS frontlines during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, as we’ve shown by already moderately high pre-covid rates of mental illness amongst healthcare professionals, for many doctors coronavirus is only one element of a wider problem. Whilst Covid-19 and its impact are always going to be key talking points during Mental Health Week 2021, it’s important to remember the many other reasons we at Remedium have had reason to speak out on the subject since long before 2020.
The main reasons doctors, both during and before the pandemic, report job-related mental health concerns are:
- Heavy workloads.
- Long working hours.
- Lack of break/respite when working.
- Extended time periods between annual leave/missed annual leave.
- Short staffing and inadequate resources.
Studies have suggested that around 85% of doctors will experience some kind of mental health difficulty during their careers. Exhaustion and burnout have been the main contributing factors to this before the pandemic, during it, and continue to be so as we return to relative normality.
Remedium: putting doctors wellbeing first
If you want to know how Remedium supports the wellbeing of our doctors, you need only look at our commitment to candidate care. Ever since 2013 when we first began finding permanent NHS roles for talented doctors both in the UK and based internationally, we have known that the mental and emotional wellbeing of our candidates needed to be at the very heart of this commitment.
For us, Mental Health Week is a chance to reiterate our stance on an issue we have been outspoken on since day 1. Our aim at Remedium has always been fighting the never-ending symptoms of the healthcare staffing crisis. These aren’t just financial costs to the NHS and reduced quality of patient care, but the real and damaging impact of burnout due to the national doctor shortage and the increased workload for existing doctors that follows.
Recent studies found that rates of burnout in doctors had increased in 2020 from 22% to 37%. Over 1 in 4 described burnout had a ‘severe impact on their lives‘. As has been reported in the UK press frequently, NHS staff that leave the organisation often cite burnout as a key reason. The UK has one of the lowest ratios of doctors-to-non-doctors, with only 2.8 doctors per 1000 people (the European average is 3.4/1000). For UK doctors this shortfall means a highly demanding workload is a constant reality if the NHS is to continue providing adequate patient care.
Organisations such as the NHS and BMA are taking steps to acknowledge and address the staffing crisis. As we have written before in our blog, Remedium welcomed the BMA workforce consulting report of 2020. Until the healthcare doctor and medical skills shortage is addressed it will be difficult to make meaningful changes that reduce levels of mental ill-health amongst doctors and the general NHS workforce.
This is why at Remedium we have set up doctors’ mental health support initiatives such as Healing our Healers. The first of these events, on July 6th, includes Dr Caroline Walker (psychiatrist, founder of The Joyful Doctor) and Dr Rachel Morris (GP, host of the You are Not a Frog podcast). It is for doctors of all specialities and levels and will provide advice and support for managing stress and anxiety during Covid-19. Remedium will continue to provide events through the Healing Our Healers initiative, ensuring that NHS (and private) doctors have a community and network of professional colleagues that share and understand their struggles. We’ve also put together our Doctor Wellbeing Resource Centre. This page is freely available on our website and contains both mental health resources and a directory of services specialising in the mental health of doctors and other medical professionals.
Mental Health Week 2021 will inevitably be focused on how Covid-19 and the pandemic has impacted all of our mental health. At Remedium we’re making sure that those who a helping us through our own struggles know there is help available for them too.