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Long hours affecting doctors mental health

7 minutes read time Categories: Medical Career

Why Junior Doctors are struggling at work and what we can do about it

Many junior doctors are feeling under pressure at work and with the current COVID-19 pandemic, most doctors are feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Recent studies show a link between junior doctors who work long hours and poorer mental health. In this article, we’ll discuss this important issue and highlight ways you can protect your health and mental wellbeing.

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Are you a Junior Doctor who works more than 55 hours a week? You’re at risk.

A 2016 audit by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) found that 53% of Australian hospital Doctors were on rosters that placed them at a significant or higher risk of fatigue and stress. In particular, those who were working more than 55 hours a week are most vulnerable to developing mental health problems and suicidal ideation.

Junior Doctors, just starting out in their career are particularly vulnerable. They’re often juggling medical exams along with high-pressure, on the job learning and medical training situations. Combine this with wanting to get ahead and a desire not to show that you’re struggling, fearing that it could tarnish your medical career forever, it’s easy to see why so many doctors are suffering in silence.

Workloads and the stats for Junior Doctors

Beyond Blue’s National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students survey revealed that Doctors aged 30 and under were more vulnerable. According to the research, junior doctors are:

  • More likely to work the longest hours of any age group (49.8 hours per week compared to 43.6 hours on average)

  • More likely to have a current diagnosis of depression (10.4% compared to 6.2% avg) and are the most likely to have a current diagnosis of anxiety (4.9% compared to 3.7% avg)

  • More likely of any age group to be probably experiencing a minor psychiatric disorder (36.7% compared to 27.2% avg) and more likely to be experiencing very high psychological distress (5.9% compared to avg of 3.4%). The general community average score for high psychological distress is 2.6%

  • More likely of any age group to have had suicidal thoughts in the past year (12.7% compared to 10.4% avg) and score the highest on the three burnout factors of high emotional exhaustion, high cynicism and low professional efficacy

The above results are similar for Doctors who are at the intern or training stage of their career. And the numbers aren’t much better for GPs, who are often at risk of burnout too.

How can Junior Doctors be better supported in their career?

Systemic change is needed and with growing awareness, a picture is slowly emerging. The Medicine in Australia: Balancing Life and Employment (MABEL) survey examined 4,012 hospital-based specialist trainees. While it reinforced the concerns around Junior Doctor experiencing bullying, burnout, workloads and high rates of suicide; it also looked at how to promote trainee wellness and how to build greater job satisfaction. It suggested that increasing medical staff numbers, promoting on the job mental wellbeing and wellness programs, as well as addressing broader regulatory issues are vital components to helping junior doctors feel safer, satisfied and supported at work.

Beyond Blue also recommended the importance of maintaining good mental health and wellbeing through education and training in positive coping strategies and stress minimisation.

How Junior Doctors can boost resilience and minimise stress

Big picture change can take time, especially during this critical time. While that happens it’s important for Junior Doctors who are struggling with feeling overworked to develop their own stress management skills.

Some of the key ways we’ve found help to build and protect mental wellbeing include:

  • Sleep: Shift work is the mortal enemy of good sleep, so this is an understandable challenge. Common suggestions are to limit blue light and use of devices an hour or so before you go to bed. Keep your room dark, maybe even wear an eye mask if you’re sleeping in the middle of the day. Taking the time to find what works best for you can go a long way to boosting your resilience and protecting your mental health.

  • Nutrition: Long hours often mean grabbing a quick meal or snack of processed foods or worse, missing meals altogether. Perhaps you can spend a few hours meal prepping for the week, or maybe a healthy meal delivery service is the answer for you.

  • Exercise: We understand working on your feet all day probably gets your steps up, but what about boosting your endorphins, getting your heart pumping and blood flowing? Getting that daily dose of exercise to release the energies accumulated throughout the day and reset can be very powerful.

  • Spiritual pursuits: Whatever that looks like for you, meditation, nature walks or even journaling, taking the time to connect to something larger than yourself can help boost resilience. This can also offer an opportunity to connect with other, like-minded people outside of work.

  • Make time for family and friends: Enjoying good company and sharing in fun experiences outside of the hospital helps keep you well-rounded and boosts feelings of connection and well-being. A strong network of people around you also means you have people to lean on when you need support. 

  • Find someone to talk to: Find a safe sounding board to share your experiences and seek help earlier rather than later if you feel you’re struggling. You can talk to counselors at companies like Select Wellness, a counseling service we use for employees at Wavelength that our doctors can also access. Beyond Blue are also committed to ending the stigma around mental health – you can contact them here. Another option is calling Lifeline to talk to someone who can help. 

  • Consider career support: Before you embark on your next step as a Doctor, consider getting professional recruitment support. The team at Wavelength are experienced in providing detailed information about job details including work environments, and details about the support team at the hospital or medical practice, which can help you make an informed choice when you’re looking at new positions. 

Do you feel overwhelmed with your workload as a doctor?

If you’re struggling with your mental health and wellbeing, especially during this challenging time, seeking help and understanding can make all the difference. You never know how one conversation with the right person could change everything for the better.

We truly care about your mental health and wellbeing. To provide additional support, we’ve been working on a partnership with a leading Australian mental health and wellbeing company to develop courses specifically designed to support our doctors in their professional and personal lives.

We’ll be sharing access to this exclusive mental wellbeing platform with our doctors in the coming months, so be sure you register to stay in the loop.