Stressed doctors urged to work part-time in bid to avoid burnout

While shorter hours might save overworked GPs from exhaustion, it will exacerbate the Health Service's recruitment crisis. Photograph: Alamy
While shorter hours might save overworked GPs from exhaustion, it will exacerbate the Health Service's recruitment crisis. Photograph: Alamy
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WORKING part-time is the only way family doctors in Scotland and elsewhere will be able to do their job without suffering “burnout”, a conference will hear this week.

A debate at the Royal College of GPs annual meeting will be told that the intensity of the workload in general practice and the long hours doctors are expected to work is having a major impact on the profession.

Glasgow GP Dr Margaret McCartney will argue that if GPs want to maintain their “personal resilience”, and avoid the stress-induced mental and physical exhaustion which can lead to burnout, they will have to cut down on their working hours.

Speaking ahead of the conference in Liverpool, which starts on Thursday, she said there was already a growing trend of GPs working part-time and she expected this to increase in the coming years.

It raises the prospect of the NHS, which is already experiencing recruitment difficulties in many areas, having to find many more doctors willing to work in general practice to help fill the gaps left by part-time staff.

The Scottish Government said it had taken measures to reduce the bureaucratic burden on GPs, as well as increasing investment in general practice.

McCartney, a GP in Anniesland, said more women had been going to medical school since the 1980s, meaning an increase in part-time working due to childcare commitments was predictable.

“But there is also an increasing trend for men to want to work part-time as well,” she said. “It is happening because general practice is so stressful. If you look at the hours worked, someone who works five or six sessions a week – around half-time – is doing about 35.5 hours a week, which is pretty close to full-time hours.

“For a lot of people the intensity of work is just so enormous that they find work very stressful.”

McCartney, who works two and a half days in her practice as well as teaching students, said in the past doctors had time to go to meetings and take part in other professional activities outside of seeing patients, but this was no longer possible. Listening to people’s problems – both medical and social – could be draining, the doctor said. “At the end of the day people are quite emotionally saturated,” she added. “It is quite hard to listen to all those things and take on people’s problems and troubles without it affecting you.

“That is one of the reasons why many people, including myself, just don’t think it is sustainable to work full-time. I would experience burnout pretty quickly if I did.

“We know that when doctors work more hours they tend to have higher levels of burnout.

“That is not to say everyone who works full-time will have burnout, but for many of us it is not that straightforward.”

McCartney said one benefit of part-time working was that GPs may decide to work longer rather than retire early.

She added the NHS would still need to recruit more doctors as it was expected that growing numbers of GPs will choose to go part-time.

“You just have to look at the number of unfilled full-time jobs. Speaking to other GPs across the country who are advertising full-time positions, they will hardly get anyone ­applying for those, but if they advertise for part-time places they are more likely to get ­interest,” McCartney said. “GP recruitment is a big problem.”

Dr Alan McDevitt, chairman of the British Medical Association’s Scottish GPs committee, said: “GPs report that they are facing relentless pressure in their day-to-day work just to keep up with the pace of ­demand while maintaining the quality of care they believe their patients deserve.

“This increased intensity of work, unless managed, will lead to rising levels of stress and burnout among doctors.

“Many doctors are therefore choosing to reduce their hours to prevent this happening.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government is committed to supporting, sustaining and enhancing general practice throughout Scotland. We recently negotiated a new contract with GPs that will give the profession financial and contractual stability until April 2017.”

She said it included measures to reduce the bureaucratic burden on GPs so they could spend more time with patients.