One-third of trainee doctors in the UK are feeling burnt out to a high or very high degree amid the Covid pandemic, up from a quarter in previous years, a survey by the General Medical Council (GMC) has found.
Experts have said medics cannot continue to work at such a high level of intensity, warning that any gains made over recent years in terms of workload and wellbeing risk being reversed.
The survey found that responses in the GMC’s annual report to questions about burnout were the worst since their introduction in 2018.
Previous research has highlighted the problem of burnout among NHS staff, with a committee of MPs saying stress was prompting some to quit, causing medical blunders and putting patients’ safety at risk.
The findings come amid growing anger over the government’s initial offer of a 1% pay rise that was recently upgraded to 3%. Many NHS staff have faced the hardest year of their career, battling wave after wave of coronavirus cases.
Charlie Massey, the GMC chief executive, said it was not surprising that burnout had worsened, but doctors could not be expected to continue working at that level of intensity. “As health services emerge from Covid, pressures will remain, but we must not risk reversing the gains that have been made in recent years,” he said.
“The danger is that, unless action is taken, workloads and wellbeing will continue to suffer, and future burnout rates could get even worse.”
The regulator’s annual national training survey was completed by either trainees or trainers. Three in five said they always or often felt worn out at the end of a working day, and 44% felt their work was emotionally exhausting to a high or very high degree.
Trainees’ responses to seven wellbeing-related questions, across all medical specialties, showed a swing towards negative answers compared with previous years.
Although trainees and trainers reported worsening levels of burnout, the quality of training remained high, similar to pre-pandemic levels. About three-quarters (76%) of trainees rated the quality of teaching as good or very good.
Eighty-one per cent of trainees said they were on course to meet their curriculum outcomes for the year, although one in 10 – a substantial number in real terms – were concerned about progressing through their training.
Dr Rowan Gossedge, an acute medicine registrar in the east of England, said many trainees “will be carrying various scars of covid for a long time”.
“There will be few people who walked away from April last year without some form of burnout or exhaustion. It was a completely strange and different time and we saw the best and worst of people,” he said, adding that burnout comes across in different ways such as people being “snappy with colleagues”, “emotionally disengaged” or simply showing “exhaustion and illness”.
“If you think of it, the difference from mid-March to August, many of us were working constant long days or long nights, in constant cycles. For me, we would have either a long day or be recovering or on a night shift to the point where you feel constantly jet-lagged … Then in August it was ‘operation restart’, where we jumped back into reorganising the NHS a bit, so there was no point to recover. Then winter hit and it was as bad as we thought,” he said, adding that staff had not had a chance to take a break.
He said he hoped hospitals looked at structures and made improvements in supporting staff, which happens now in other businesses or the private sector.
Massey said: “The pandemic has caused inevitable disruption, and some training opportunities have been lost. But, thanks to the efforts and hard work of trainers and trainees, where training has been possible, the quality has been sustained.
“We know many trainees remain concerned about their training progression, so we are working hard to ensure training is flexible, fair, and helps prepare doctors to meet current and future patient needs.”