Burnout a Major Concern Among Maternity Staff

A new study involving Imperial College London and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has found that more than one-third of maternity doctors are suffering from burnout. According to the researchers this is a “very worrying” situation which means the health and safety of mothers and children may be at risk.

The research, which was published in BMJ Open, involved 3,102 obstetricians and gynaecologists working in maternity services and utilised a tool known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory in order to analyse the level of stress and burnout in the sector, with special focus on the medics’ mental and physical wellbeing.

The study identified long-term and persistent stress levels in an under-resourced and highly pressurised health service to be the major factor behind the problem, particularly among trainee doctors and nurses. This is concerning, as numerous earlier studies have identified burnout to be a significant factor affecting the quality of care provided by medical staff. Against this background it seems understandable that those experiencing stress were found to be around four times more likely to adopt “defensive” medical practices. This means that, fearful of making mistakes, they reported a tendency to carry out a greater number of interventions than is strictly necessary, to overprescribe medications and to avoid difficult cases.

Worryingly, the study found that nearly four in ten of those participating in the survey met the litmus test for “burnout”. This meant that they reported experiencing lack of empathy for those under their care, lack of connection and feelings of severe emotional fatigue.

Trainee doctors were the group most likely to be affected, with more than four in ten meeting the criteria for burnout as defined by the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Furthermore, it seems that burnout is causing doctors, nurses and midwives problems in their personal lives, with many reporting anger management problems, symptoms of anxiety disorders and generalised irritability.

The study’s lead author, Tom Bourne, a professor with Imperial College London’s department of metabolism, digestion and reproduction, commented, “We found the results of this survey very worrying. The levels of burnout were high, particularly amongst younger doctors. This has serious implications for patients, as we know burnout reduces patient satisfaction, safety and standards of care.

“These results point to an environment in UK hospitals that makes staff unwell and less able to carry out their jobs safely. There is a clear need to address both the workplace and culture.”

More about burnout

Burnout can be experienced by new parents who are getting to grips with having a young child and all the additional responsibility and sleeplessness that this inevitably entails. However, as the Imperial College London study details, burnout can also be caused by occupational factors, with doctors twice as likely to develop burnout compared to those working in other professions.

Occupational burnout is typically characterised by emotional exhaustion, an empathy deficiency and feelings of inadequacy.

According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Furthermore, WHO says that it is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy