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Senior doctors battle entrenched burnout

7 May 2021 ASMS

A survey by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Toi Mata Hauora, shows one in two senior doctors are experiencing high levels of burnout and there has been no improvement in the past five years.

Burnout is an occupational syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress.

ASMS has repeated a survey carried out in 2015 to compare burnout levels five years on and to measure the impact of staffing shortages, growing patient demand and clinical pressures.

More than 2,100 ASMS members took part, and the results are detailed in a new report “My Employer is Exhausting – Burnout in the senior medical workforce five years on”.

The survey results indicate that high levels of burnout caused by work-related stress and exhaustion is now an entrenched feature of the senior medical and dental workforce.

Some of the key takeaways from the survey are:

  • 50% of respondents reported burnout
  • Burnout affects female doctors more than male doctors
  • More than half of the respondents in eleven of the 20 DHBs scored as likely to be suffering from burnout
  • Southern DHB recorded the highest levels of burnout and a significant increase
  • Radiation oncologists, rural hospital specialists, respiratory physicians and emergency department specialists recorded the highest burnout levels.

Those who responded to the survey emphasised burgeoning patient demand, frustrations with the system, being pushed to do more with less, staffing shortages and overstretched specialist services which can’t provide patients with the level of care required.

“This latest survey reinforces that we have a very stressed-out medical workforce in which burnout has become an entrenched feature,” says ASMS Director of Policy and Research Dr Charlotte Chambers.

“It also highlights that not enough is being done to manage clinical workloads and burnout risk”.

The report stresses that burnout is not an individual failure but a failure by the system to address the root cause of the problem.

“Wellbeing is a formal responsibility of an employer and DHBs have not been meeting their obligations,” Dr Chambers says.

“Among other things they need to be providing opportunities for more flexible working arrangements, and better rest and recovery time for those doing on-call and shift work. The normalisation of excessively long working hours also needs to stop”.

The report calls for adequate resourcing of hospital departments to meet patient demand, regular staff-focussed service reviews, and staff wellbeing indicators to be included as a standing item in hospital audits.

Under the health reforms announced by the government next month, the employment and management of health workers will fall under the new entity Health New Zealand.

ASMS believes as a new national employer Health New Zealand must seize the opportunity to develop a strategic plan to manage burnout in the senior medical workforce, commit to proper workforce planning and invest in the clinical staff working at the coalface of the health system.

“Making the health reforms work will rely on a healthy, well-resourced and cared for health workforce,” Dr Chambers says.