Thousands of overworked doctors plan to leave the NHS, BMA finds

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA

Location: England
Published: Monday 3 May 2021

Thousands of exhausted doctors in the UK have told the BMA they are considering leaving the NHS in the next year, as many continue to battle stress and burnout without adequate respite from the exhaustion caused by the demands of the pandemic. 

While half of respondents (2,099) in the Association’s latest tracker survey1 said they plan to work fewer hours, 25% said they are ‘more likely’ to take a career break, with a further 21% considering leaving the NHS altogether for another career.2

Asked why, many doctors pointed to workload, including the inability to take breaks or leave. In fact, almost 40% of respondents say they don’t even have a place at work where they can safely relax with colleagues, but know that they’d find it beneficial if they did.

The number of UK doctors now considering early retirement has more than doubled in less than 12 months, with 32% of respondents (1,352) to April’s survey considering leaving the NHS early (compared to 14% last June).

These findings are the latest in a series of similar results from the BMA’s tracker surveys, which have been running since the start of the pandemic, and provide further evidence underpinning the Association’s recent calls for staff to be given time and resources to rest – particularly ahead of the growing backlog of patient care.3

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “It’s deeply worrying that more and more doctors are considering leaving the NHS because of the pressures of the pandemic – talented, experienced professionals who the NHS needs more than ever to pull this country out of a once-in-a-generation health crisis. 

“Doctors and other healthcare workers have told us they need space and time to rest and recuperate – especially as we look ahead to tackling the frightening  backlog of care of millions of patients. 

“Far too many doctors and healthcare workers are being denied even a space to unwind in at work, never mind a proper break and time to recuperate. This is leading to a detrimental impact on doctors’ health and wellbeing and forcing them to feel as though they have no choice but to abandon a profession they love and worked so hard to achieve. 

“For those that stay, working without respite endangers patient care from doctors becoming exhausted and burnt out -  we’ve already seen an increase in staff taking sick leave4, further draining the NHS of its precious workforce. 

“More than half of doctors are afraid of an unmanageable workload to try and deal with the backlog of millions of patients who are waiting for treatment, and most do not feel that their hospital or department will be able to cope with demand. Three out of five doctors are worried about the impact of the backlog on patient care.

“It’s worth noting that our latest survey also found that 57% of doctors said they only feel ‘partly’ protected from Covid-19 at work – a shockingly high figure for this stage of the pandemic, and perhaps another factor playing into increased stress among healthcare workers. 

“Doctors’ suggestions of leaving the NHS are on the rise5, highlighting the desperate situation many of our members currently find themselves in. This is not something that can be pushed down the queue – it’s a ticking time bomb that the UK Government must act on as a matter of urgency.

“Without doing so, we face a mass exodus of staff leaving the NHS and patient care put in serious jeopardy, all at a time when we need our health service more than ever before.”

An acute speciality doctor told the BMA: “A ‘break’ on shift means I try to grab 10 minutes in my office to down a cup of tea and catch up on some of the hundreds of emails I need to read before inevitably being called back out. My usual finish time on these shifts is around two hours after I’m rostered to leave. I spend my rest days catching up on the rest of the emails I don’t have time to deal with at work. It’s exhausting. 

“I’ve started exploring career opportunities outside of the NHS. I don’t know yet if I’ll leave clinical medicine, but I’m seriously considering it. If the right opportunity presents itself I’ll go for it. It’s a tough thing to consider, I love the NHS but I know I can’t keep this pace up indefinitely. My own mental and physical health will have to become a priority at some point.”

A GP, from Yorkshire, said: “In my more than 20 years of training and working in the NHS, I have been closest to leaving the job that I love in the last few months. There are various reasons for it, but it mainly comes down to lack of confidence in a Government that failed the public and profession during the pandemic, and is now claiming the success of the profession’s vaccination delivery as their own in order to hide their failings.  

“Like most, I’ve had days where I wanted to stop.  I’ve had colleagues in tears - some scared of what is happening around us and some completely overwhelmed with the avalanche of work that has hit general practice. If things don’t change in the next few weeks, I do worry that many colleagues will leave the profession, not because they have failed, but the Government and the system failed them.”

Another told the Association: “I do two clinical days and go home a zombie. In the last few weeks, I’ve sat at home, once or twice until two in the morning, concerned I may have missed something. The pressure during the day is phenomenal, more than I have ever experienced and several GPs are now saying the last month is the hardest they have ever worked. Many are looking to take their pension and go.”

A Northern Ireland consultant added: “My team and I are completely exhausted – I can’t remember the last time one of us had a break during the working day, and lunch is eaten during meetings or other clinical work.  Several colleagues have talked about leaving their current NHS roles, and I personally have considered resigning more than once in the last 12 months. If things continue this way it is inevitable that we will lose staff either through sickness absence or retirement/resignation.”


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. Full survey results.
  2. When asked, ‘How, if at all, have you changed your career plans for the next year in the following areas’:
  • 32% said they are ‘more likely’ to take early retirement (1,352 respondents)
  • 21% said the same to leaving the NHS for another career (882)
  • 25% said they are ‘more likely’ to take a career break (1,065)
  • 17% said they were ‘more likely’ to work in another country (728)
  • 50% said the same for working fewer hours (2,099)
  • 6% said they were ‘more likely’ to work more hours (248)
  • 15% said the same for working as a locum (617)

3. Latest data from NHS England shows that some 387,885 people had been waiting more than 52 weeks to start hospital treatment as of February 2021 - the highest number for any calendar month since December 2007.

In our survey, more than half of doctors (56%) told the BMA they are ‘not at all’ or ‘not very confident’ that their practice or department will be able to manage patient demand as NHS services resume. 97% of respondents said they are ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about the likely health outcomes of patients who have had to wait longer than before the pandemic to be seen or treated. 

4. According to NHS Digital, the overall sickness absence rate for England alone was 5.1% in December 2020. This is higher than November 2020 (4.9%) and higher than December 2019 (4.9%).

5. In the BMA’s February 2021 tracker survey, 26% of respondents said they were ‘more likely’ to take an early retirement, and 18% said they were ‘more likely’ to leave the NHS for another career.