Stress and burnout in colorectal and vascular surgical consultants working in the UK National Health Service

A Sharma, D M Sharp, L G Walker, J R T Monson
Psycho-oncology 2008, 17 (6): 570-6

BACKGROUND: It has been suggested that dealing with cancer is associated with increased stress and burnout in health-care professionals. The aim of this study is to examine the prevalence of psychiatric morbidity and burnout in surgeons working in the National Health Service (NHS), and the putative relationship between psychiatric morbidity, burnout and the amount of cancer-related work.

METHODS: All consultant colorectal and vascular surgeons identified from their professional societies were sent a booklet consisting of questions about cancer-related and specialty-specific work load, job satisfaction and socio-demographics. It also included the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12), the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) and the Coping Questionnaire. Logistic regression analysis was used to identify independent predictors of psychiatric morbidity (GHQ), burnout (MBI) and retirement intentions.

RESULTS: Five hundred and one questionnaire booklets were completed and returned (response rate 58.7%). The mean age of respondents was 47 years (range 31-65). The majority of the surgeons were male (460, 92%). One hundred and sixty-three (33%) surgeons scored in the positive range of the GHQ, and 154 (32%) had high burnout on at least one subscale of the MBI. Three hundred and eighty-three (77%) surgeons stated that they intended to retire before the statutory retirement age. Level of work satisfaction and perceived adequacy of training in communication and management skills were significantly negatively correlated with GHQ and MBI scores. Surgeons who planned to take early retirement or wished to retire as soon as they could afford to were more likely to have psychiatric morbidity and/or burnout. Surgeons who were married or cohabiting were less likely to have psychiatric morbidity, and younger surgeons were more likely to have higher levels of depersonalization (DP). Work satisfaction was negatively correlated with psychiatric morbidity and all three burnout scales. Colorectal surgeons had a greater cancer-related workload than vascular surgeons (48.6 vs 7.5%, respectively, U=2667, p<0.005). However, there were no significant differences between the two groups in psychiatric morbidity, personal accomplishment and emotional exhaustion. Vascular surgeons, however, had significantly higher levels of DP (p=0.04).

CONCLUSION: Levels of psychiatric morbidity, burnout and work dissatisfaction are worryingly high in colorectal and vascular surgeons and are likely to impact adversely on patient satisfaction and service quality. The number of surgeons intending to retire early is also a cause for concern both in terms of the overall number of trained surgeons in the NHS and in the balance between senior and junior surgeons. Apart from DP, these indicators of stress, however, were unrelated to cancer workload.

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