Half of Northern Ireland doctors say mental wellbeing now worse than before the covid-19 pandemic

by BMA Northern Ireland media team

Press release from BMA Northern Ireland.

Location: Northern Ireland
Last reviewed: 2 November 2020

Half of doctors working in Northern Ireland say their mental health is worse now than before the Covid-19 pandemic, with over 70% saying they are anxious about the coming months.

In the latest BMA survey of its members here, 63% of respondents said they are more fatigued than normal, 70% say they are having to do additional work to cover staffing and service gaps while 51% say their morale is low.

Speaking about the survey, Dr Tom Black, BMA Northern Ireland council chair, said: “This paints a worrying picture of the wellbeing of frontline medics just as the pressures of the second covid surge take hold.

“Doctors, along with their colleagues across the health and social care system, responded quickly and selflessly to the challenges of the first surge of this pandemic.  But these survey results tell us this has come at a personal cost of increasing levels of work-related depression, stress, anxiety and burnout across both primary and secondary care.”

The survey also found that the three biggest concerns doctors here currently have are staffing shortages (83%), how non-covid patient care will be affected to cope with the pandemic (63%) and how their own personal health and wellbeing is being affected (62%). 

“Every doctor I talk to tells me this second surge is by far worse than the first one,” continued Dr Black.

“There is very real genuine worry among doctors that the system is on the verge of collapse across both primary and secondary care and this worry is reflected in these survey results. Our hospitals are at capacity or nearing capacity. We didn’t have enough doctors or nurses prior to Covid-19 and now isolation, illness and pandemic priorities mean we have even less.  Patients with life-threatening non-covid illnesses are having to wait even longer for treatment and this is totally unacceptable.”

Over 73% of survey respondents said they were anxious about the coming months, something that Dr Black said should “serve as yet another red flag to our Executive”.

“The feeling of frustration amongst clinicians as they do their best to care for their patients during this second surge while mindful that winter pressures have yet to take hold cannot be understated,” he continued.

“This is further compounded by the fact that many of them are concerned about having to make difficult choices on patient care, choices they otherwise would not have had to make had the health and social care system and its workforce not been subject to years of chronic under investment.  Furthermore, many are still waiting on payment for additional hours worked during the first phase, leaving them feeling undervalued and contributing to low morale and leading them to consider reducing their hours in the coming months which is the last thing we need.

“The Executive owe it to frontline health service staff - and to the sick and vulnerable these staff care for - to do everything in their power to support our health service over the coming months.  If we continue the way we are, while this virus is still in the community, there will be no health service left to save.”

Notes to editors

  • 418 doctors from across Northern Ireland responded to the survey which was carried out between the 20th and 22nd October 2020.
  • In response to the question ‘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?’, 50.75% answered ‘yes – and worse than before the start of the pandemic’
  • In response to the question ‘How does your current level of health and wellbeing compare with that during the first wave of the pandemic?’, 40.94% answered ‘Slightly worse’, 11.66% said ‘much worse’, and 34.24% said it was ‘about the same’.
  • In response to the question ‘How anxious or enthused do you personally feel about working during the forthcoming Autumn/ Winter months?’, 54.59% answered ‘Quite anxious’, 18.61% answered ‘Extremely anxious’ and 23.33% answered ‘Neither anxious nor enthused’.
  • In response to the question ‘How would you describe your current level of fatigue or exhaustion from working during this pandemic?’, 64.02% answered ‘Higher than normal’ and 32.51% answered ‘Normal level for me’.
  • In response to the question ‘What impact, if any, has self-isolation and sick leave due to Covid had on your department / team / practice?’, 70% answered ‘Had to do additional work / overtime to cover for absent colleagues’, 50.48% answered ‘Reduced the number of patients who can be seen’, 39.52% answered ‘Had to cancel patient appointments’, 36.19% answered ‘Had to stop other activities (e.g. research, teaching, professional development)’.
  • In response to the question ‘Which of the following issues are you most concerned about when thinking about the next few months?’ Please choose up to 4 answers’, the top four answers were:’ Staffing shortages’ (83.25%); ‘Ability to cope with demand from non-Covid patients’ (63.09%); ‘Personal health and wellbeing’ (62.83%), and; ‘Plans to tackle backlog of waiting patients’ (46.60%).
  • The BMA provides a range of wellbeing services including 24/7 counselling.
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