Female doctors ‘felt compelled to step up’ during Covid-19 and are suffering as a result, BMA research finds

by BMA media team

BMA press release

Published: Monday 8 March 2021

Female doctors say they have ‘felt compelled to step up’ during the pandemic, even though they knew they were at risk, as BMA research shows that they have been consistently taking on extra - often unpaid - work to the detriment of their own wellbeing and mental health.

In a diary, written as part of this research, a female doctor from an acute specialty wrote:

“As the first cases started to be reported in the UK we also heard that men were dying in much higher numbers than women, and the chance of serious illness or death was higher the older they were.

“All of our team members over the age of 50 were male. I knew that although every extra hour at work created more risk to myself, the risk was less than that being faced by my older, male colleagues. Putting myself forwards to work in the red zones and to take on additional clinical work wasn’t something I debated.”

The Association has been regularly surveying doctors across the UK since April last year to better understand their experiences and the issues they face as they work through Covid-19.

When comparing genders, the BMA’s latest survey of more than 7,000 doctors, found that 27% of women answered ‘yes’ when asked, “Within the last month, have you undertaken additional hours’ work over and above your contractual requirement as part of the response to Covid?” 23% of men answered yes.1

When asked if this was because they felt pressured by their employer or themselves, however, more than a quarter (26%) admitted they felt pressured ‘by myself’, compared to 15% who said it was because of their employer.2

These figures are concerning in their own right, but even more so when compared to previous results. Since August, there has been a seven percentage points increase in the number of women saying they have taken on additional hours’ work outside of the contractual requirements.3

When asked in April 2020, if they consider themselves to be currently suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress, or other mental health conditions relating to or made worse by their work or study, 31% of women said ‘yes, and worse during this pandemic than before’, compared to just 25% of men.4

Ten months later, in February of this year, that figure had risen to 44% for women and 35% for male doctors.5 While an increase in levels of burnout and emotional distress are to be expected for all doctors, the disparity between the sexes is marked and growing.

Another female doctor, working at a vaccination centre, told the Association: “I woke up early again this morning feeling the weight of all the work I had to do. I had meetings straight after work again. As so often is the case, I didn't manage to get a lunch break because it was too busy.

“It's nearly 10pm now and I'm staring at my cold cup of tea and thinking about all the things I still have to do. I'm grateful I have a day off coming up as I think I'll need to get a few hours’ sleep in. I am not sure how my colleagues manage to cope when they have caring responsibilities - it takes all the little energy I have left trying to care for myself, let alone anyone else.”

She added: “Our waiting lists are bad at the moment. Colleagues have been profoundly affected by the impact of Covid on the service, the patients, their personal lives - to the point of leaving. Every time we hear from our patients about the impact Covid is having on them, it's so hard to try to encourage them.”

Dr Helena McKeown, a chief officer at the BMA, said: “Everyone in the NHS is currently going above and beyond in the fight against Covid-19, but to see the pressures that women are putting on themselves at the expense of their own health is shocking.

“There is perhaps an assumption that balancing the demands of home-schooling and childcare with their work and personal lives is the only cause of increased stress amongst female doctors, but as these results show, this clearly isn’t the case, and rather something that women from all different walks of life are struggling with.

“Understanding why this is, is an important step in helping to relieve the pressures that female doctors are currently facing, and it’s important to remember that while doctors - both men and women - have a tendency to just ‘get on with it’, we are not superhuman and need to take care of ourselves as much as we do our patients.

“The effects of this pandemic will be felt for a long time to come, both in terms of the impact on the NHS, and the long-term mental wellbeing of our staff. Even as Covid-19 cases fall, doctors and their colleagues will continue to feel the pressure as the health service faces a surge in demand for non-Covid-related care.

“The BMA is concerned about the current, medium and long-term effects on the workforce of working so hard with so little respite and experiences including caring for many dying and critically ill patients, moral injury and putting themselves at risk. It is vital that staff can access occupational health assessments of their wellbeing with suitably adapted working patterns and psychological support, now and for as long as it’s needed. Supporting the wellbeing of the health workforce must be a top priority in the long-term.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union and professional association representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. 1.Doctors were asked, ‘Within the last month, have you undertaken additional hours’ work over and above your contractual requirement as part of the response to Covid?’
    Women – 26.59% (of 4,182 who responded to this question) said yes, but unpaid
    Women – 9.35% said yes, but still awaiting payment
    Men – 23.07% (of 3,030 who responded to this question) said yes, but unpaid
    Men – 7.36% said yes, but still awaiting payment
  2. Doctors were asked, ‘Within the last month, to what extent have you felt pressured by any of the following to work additional hours (regardless of whether you actually did so)?’
    (By employer)
    Women – 14.93% (of 4,051 who responded to this question)said to a ‘significant extent’
    Male – 12.62% (of 2,972 who responded to this question)said the same
    (By myself)
    Women – 25.66% (of 4.146 who responded to this question)said to a ‘significant extent’
    Men – 20.35% (of 3,002 who responded to this question)
  3. Doctors were asked, ‘In the period since March, have you undertaken additional hours' work over your
    contractual requirement as part of the response to Covid?’
    Women – 20.44% (of 1,267 who responded to this question)said yes, but unpaid
    Women – 7.73% said yes, but still awaiting payment
    Men – 19.56% (of 1,263 who responded to this question)of men said yes, but unpaid
    Men – 6.73% said yes, but still awaiting payment
  4. Doctors were asked, ‘During this pandemic, do you consider that you are currently suffering from any of depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress or other mental health condition relating to or made worse by your work?’
    Women – 30.76% (of 7,633 who responded to this question)said ‘yes – and worse during this pandemic than before’
    Men – 25.49% (of 6,003 who responded to this question)said the same
  5. Doctors were asked, ‘During this pandemic, do you consider that you are currently suffering from any of depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, emotional distress, or other mental health condition relating to or made worse by your work or study?’
    Women – 44.34% (of 4,495 who responded to this question) said ‘yes – and worse than before the start of the pandemic’
    Men – 35.17% (of 3,236 who responded to this question) said the same