Stress leads junior doctors to drink more and burnout: UOW study finds

Dr Rebekah Hoffman is now a practising GP and a PhD student at UOW Graduate Medicine’s General Practice Academic Unit (GPAU). Picture: Paul Jones
Dr Rebekah Hoffman is now a practising GP and a PhD student at UOW Graduate Medicine’s General Practice Academic Unit (GPAU). Picture: Paul Jones

During her early days in the medical profession Dr Rebekah Hoffman found herself “not giving a sh**”.

She wasn’t happy and work was the last place in the world she wanted to be.

So she promptly quit. The decision to leave the job mid-term was unheard of in the profession and her employers weren’t particularly happy.

But quitting was “one of the best things” she has ever done.

Dr Hoffman didn’t know it at the time, but she was burnt out.

“It's only really in hindsight that I knew I was burnt out,” she told the Mercury.

“At the time I just knew that I wasn’t happy and I didn’t want to keep working where I was working and I was trying to not go to work every day.”

Dr Hoffman is now a practising GP and a PhD student at UOW Graduate Medicine’s General Practice Academic Unit (GPAU).

She also recently conducted a study which found a volatile combination of factors, including pressure to perform, lack of support from senior colleagues and lack of self-care, puts junior doctors at high risk of burnout.

The physical and mental health of medical professionals has been in the spotlight following a survey published in 2013 by mental health organisation beyondblue that found doctors in Australia have substantially higher rates of psychological distress and attempted suicide than the Australian population.

Dr Hoffman surveyed junior doctors in NSW and Victoria to understand the experience of burnout and its causes.

She hoped the study co-authored by Professor Andrew Bonney, the Roberta Williams Chair of General Practice at UOW Graduate Medicine, would contribute to the important conversation around the health and wellbeing of junior doctors.

“I actually now train registras in general practice. One of the first things I talk to them about is fatigue and looking after yourself,” Dr Hoffman said.

“I want them to talk up and talk to me if they are having any problems at work or home. I’m really trying to be the supervisor that I’d hoped I would’ve had then but didn’t. Junior doctors deal with a lot of stress from their peers and patients.

“We need to recognise the early signs such as not giving a sh** about work, drinking too much and generally just not looking after themselves.

“Junior doctors need to know it’s okay to look after yourself and to let people know if you’re struggling.”

Doctor burnout not only affects the individual, it can lead to increased absenteeism and depression, medical errors and engaging in risky alcohol use.

Some hospitals have put in place resilience training, and organisations such as the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists have commissioned reviews into guidelines for doctor stress and fatigue.

Dr Hoffman said the measures are good first step, but were incomplete and needed to be supplemented with evidence-based strategies that do not shift blame to the junior doctor.

“If we don't address it, nothing changes. This is an opportunity to introduce new policies and guidelines in doctor training,” she said.

‘Junior doctors, burnout and wellbeing: Understanding the experience of burnout in general practice registrars and hospital equivalents’, was published recently in the Australian Journal of General Practice.

While you’re with us, did you know the Illawarra Mercury is now offering breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up-to-date with all the local news - sign up here