Healthcare professionals working during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are up to 3.3-times more likely to be burned out compared to non-healthcare professionals, despite the rates of mental health issues being similar, according to new research led by Queen Mary University of London.
Patient at doctor's appointment.
The researchers behind the study are concerned if this burnout persists, we could see more mental health disorders and cases of cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes or coronary heart disease, among healthcare workers.
Published today in BJPsych Open and funded by Barts Charity, the study also shows that healthcare professionals who deal directly with patients are also more likely to be burned out compared to those who do not.
The study involved a series of online surveys assessing the rates of major depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, insomnia, burnout, and low emotional wellbeing. The first survey was conducted in July-September 2020, the second six weeks later, and the final one being completed roughly four months later during the second UK national lockdown.
The most alarming finding was that healthcare professionals had a significantly elevated risk of burnout compared to non-healthcare professionals during the second and third surveys. This difference in the risk of burnout appeared to increase over time: from 2.5-times to 3.3-times elevated risk.
The researchers speculate that while the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health of the entire population, higher workloads, longer hours, the stress of caring for patients, and anxiety around increased exposure to the virus meant healthcare professionals were placed under far greater stress than other people.
Dr Ajay Gupta, study author and Senior Clinical Lecturer at Queen Mary and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Pharmacology and Cardiovascular Medicine, said: “We should all be worried about the disproportionately high rates of burnout in healthcare professionals, which may persist and lead to an even greater staffing and retention crisis for an already overburdened and underfunded NHS.
“It’s a problem that no-one seems to want to address, and we could be sleep-walking into a disaster unless we listen to our healthcare workers’ concerns and give them the support they need. Unless we can stop the burnout trend, we could see more mental health and physical consequences such as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in our doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers.”
Fiona Miller Smith, CEO of Barts Charity, said: “In the early days of the pandemic, it was incredibly clear to us at Barts Charity that we needed to shift some of our funding toward covid impact relief. We hope these findings inform future policy on improvements to mental health care for all healthcare staff. Staff wellbeing is very important to us at Barts Charity and we are proud to be funders of this study."
While previous studies indicated that healthcare professionals are at a greater risk of mental health issues, these studies had been conducted at single time points or had focused on a narrow range of mental health problems. But this new study, part of the COVID-19 disease and Physical and Emotional Wellbeing of Health Care Professionals (CoPE-HCP) study, was the first to focus on a range of mental health issues and relatively underexamined issues such as burnout and emotional wellbeing at multiple time points during the pandemic.