David Triska had been accustomed to high-pressured situations as an army medic serving two tours of Afghanistan, yet the mounting stress he experienced as a general practitioner proved to be an entirely different battlefield. Working at a village GP surgery pushed him to the brink with the ceaseless demands leaving him feeling “hollowed out and spent”. Simple tasks like unlocking his car or preparing a meal weighed heavily on him as if they were monstrous obstacles, draining him down to a “husk of a human”.
This dire situation led him to question the worthiness of his existence. His struggle, however, was not a solitary one. Over the recent years, there has been a 77% surge in doctors seeking mental health assistance according to figures disclosed by a confidential support service dedicated to NHS staff. To illustrate, the NHS Practitioner Health programme in England was utilized by more than 5,600 doctors in 2022/23. Disturbingly, about one-third of them confessed to contemplating suicide.
Strikingly, the majority of these cases find their roots in challenging working conditions, says Zaid Al-Najjar, the service’s medical director. He cites these figures as an indication of “distress in the workforce”. As the NHS enters its busiest period in winter, the demand for mental health support among doctors is anticipated to increase even more.
David Triska, like many others, required an intervention from a colleague to understand that he was suffering from burnout, an ailment identified by the World Health Organization as chronic exhaustion resulting from enduring workplace stress. Though supported by the NHS Practitioner Health, he still needed to retreat from work for three months to recover.
According to Dr Al-Najjar, factors, including the “extraordinary” working conditions of the pandemic and “chronic underfunding of the NHS”, amplified these mental health issues. Al-Najjar expresses his apprehension that the current surge in service utilization might be “just the tip of the iceberg”. One of the biggest concerns is the number of individuals reluctant to seek help fearing potential career repercussions.
In these trying times, offering confidential care through services like the NHS Practitioner Health has become a necessity. This flagship programme was launched in 2008, offering confidential support for doctors. It extended its services to all doctors in England by 2019, and became available to eligible staff across the NHS by 2021.
Interestingly, the data shows that approximately 90% of those accessing the service are doctors, with GPs having the largest representation at about 40%. These figures alert a “stark and painful reminder of the immense pressures” that GPs face, as highlighted by the British Medical Association (BMA). Furthermore, more than 40% of doctors found their workload overwhelming each week in 2022, marking a steady increase from 30% in the preceding year.
Regarding this issue, the government’s NHS England workforce plan aims to curtail this rising tide. The plan will focus on training a greater number of doctors and nurses while also creating thousands of new roles to support them.
The Department of Health and Social Care maintains that the wellbeing of all NHS workers is crucial. Comprehensive coaching, support, and practitioner mental health services are accessible to all staff.
They also announced an increase in staffing, with more than 2,000 additional doctors and 31,000 extra general practice staff since June 2019. Furthermore, they reported a record number of trainees, signaling the hope of much-needed reinforcements in this critical sector.