Rising number of healthcare professionals experiencing stress, anxiety, burnout

Support service says issues are translating to substance misuse and suicidal ideation

The number of healthcare professionals presenting with stress, anxiety and burnout increased by more than a third last year, a new report states.

The Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP), a confidential mental health support service for those working in the healthcare sector, said these symptoms are resulting in clinicians misusing substances such as alcohol or drugs, questioning their careers and contemplating suicide.

There were 106 new presentations to the programme last year, up 36 per cent on 2020, according to PHMP’s 2021 annual report.

The number of new presentations in a calendar year has now more than doubled in the five-year period since its inception in 2015.

The predominant issues for those presenting to the service include anxiety, depression, substance use issues and burnout, with others also citing stress, feelings of being overwhelmed, sleep problems and moral distress.

According to the PHMP, healthcare professionals rarely present with a single issue but rather a wide range of conditions and concerns.

Of those new presentations in 2021, the majority were doctors (83 per cent), followed by pharmacists (10 per cent), dentists (4 per cent) and students (3 per cent).

Three out of four new presentations were people aged between 26 and 49 years old, while 57 per cent were female.

Time off

The PHMP continues to support 79 practitioners while they continue to work, 19 practitioners who have returned to work after a period of time off and eight practitioners who are no longer working but continue to attend.

Of the 358 doctors who have presented since the programme began in 2015, 45 per cent were non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHDs), 29 per cent were GPs and GP trainees, and 23 per cent were consultants.

Dr Íde Delargy, medical director at PHMP, said the programme recorded the biggest increase in presentations last year, which can be attributed in part to the impact of Covid-19.

“As a society, we stood behind our healthcare professionals, many of whom worked on the frontline for much of the pandemic,” she said.

“But medicine is a challenging career, and, whether stress caused by the uncertainty of the pandemic or the mental and physical strain of a relentless workload, the lasting legacy of Covid-19 will be felt by our doctors, dentists and pharmacists for a considerable time to come.”

Dr Delargy said PHMP staff were seeing “more and more clinicians” attending the service with symptoms associated with burnout, anxiety, and depression.

“Many of these symptoms are leading individuals to misuse substances, whether alcohol, drugs, or both. Others talk about having reached a breaking point where they can no longer see a future in their careers and have no other option but to leave the profession. In the most severe cases, some admitted to suicidal thoughts,” she added.

However, through intervention, some 92 per cent of those treated by PHMP have continued working after receiving support.