Year of unparalleled pressure leaves staff exhausted and on the brink, BMA survey shows

by BMA media team

Media release from the BMA

Location: England Wales Northern Ireland
Published: Friday 1 January 2021
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Thousands of doctors have revealed the impact that working during the pandemic has had on their mental health and wellbeing, in a major BMA survey that exposes how a year of unparalleled pressure has pushed an understaffed and exhausted workforce to the brink.

New figures from the latest BMA tracker survey of doctors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, show that almost 60 per cent (58%) of doctors are now suffering from some form of anxiety or depression, with 46 per cent saying their condition had worsened since the start of pandemic.

While 67 per cent of doctors say that current levels of fatigue and exhaustion are higher than normal as they tackle a mounting second wave and a growing backlog of care, on top of the usual seasonal demand.

Today, in his new year message to doctors across the UK, BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul issued a stark warning that the NHS needs more resources and staff if it is to remain fit for purpose and vaccinate the public effectively:

“The months ahead will be as challenging, if not more so, as when the virus first peaked in April. We know from our tracker surveys that over four in ten doctors’ mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, with many exhausted from working flat out without taking adequate leave for over ten months.

“It’s vital that the vaccination programme is delivered as fast as humanly possible, so that both health and care workers and as much of the population can be immunised to relieve our health service from the scourge of Covid-19. This requires proper resourcing of staff, including GPs and primary care teams, who need to be given the space and time to vaccinate and protect the nation.”

The doctors’ union fears that the current level of strain being placed on doctors could have a lasting impact on workforce numbers in the wake of the pandemic, with 47 per cent of doctors telling the same BMA survey that they are now more likely to work fewer hours in the future.

A further 27% of doctors said they were now more likely to take early retirement and another 27 per cent are more likely to take a career break.

These further reductions to the workforce can sorely be afforded with an existing shortage of more than 8,000 consultants and the number of fully qualified GPs continuing to fall.

At a time when the NHS is facing a national health emergency, the need for more doctors has never been more important. The BMA is also demanding that those currently working in the health service are properly protected against Covid-19 – both through vaccination and adequate PPE - so that they can continue to fight this devastating virus and keep patients safe.

Concluding his New Year message, Dr Nagpaul said that we must never go back to an NHS which is under-staffed, under-resourced and under-prepared for surges in demand, let alone a pandemic:

“This year the Chancellor must deliver on his promise to ‘give the NHS whatever it needs’.  Ultimately, 2021 needs to be year where doctors feel valued and rewarded for serving the nation in a caring, supportive culture of equal opportunity.

“It was from the ruins of the second world war that our health service was born. From the ruins of today’s national health emergency, the UK government must seize the chance this year to rebuild the NHS anew on its founding principles of being there for all at times of need.”

Speaking about the current pressures faced by doctors and the impact this is having on colleagues, consultant of 22 years, Dr Helen Fidler said: “Gradually over the last 10 years things have slowly been getting more and more difficult but when the pandemic hit there was just no slack in the system at all.

“We are being pushed to the limit and colleagues are saying now they just can’t do this anymore.

“In a way it is positive that they are able to say that, but sadly it’s a reflection that they have actually become quite ill and they simply can’t keep going anymore.

“This is the worst situation the NHS has been in during my career, without a doubt.

“Doctors are being made to feel responsible for a system that just isn’t working at the moment. They then feel they have to work even harder because they feel responsibility for a broken system and that then just makes them more burnt out.

“While we’re facing constant daily pressures, it isn’t just the unsustainable workload that is having thing damaging impact. It’s that feeling of guilt in not being able to provide the level of care you want can also add to those feelings of anxiety and burnout.”

Notes to editors

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. Latest secondary care workforce data
  2. BMA paper: Consultant workforce shortages and solutions: Now and in the future
  3. 7,776 doctors and medical students took part in the survey between 14 and 17 December. Results available here.