Hospital Dr News

Three quarters of doctors face ‘Superdoctor Syndrome’ and risk burnout

Nearly three quarters (72%) of doctors surveyed in the UK say they will always come into work, even when they are too unwell, fatigued or stressed to be productive, a report finds.

A report – ‘Breaking the burnout cycle’ – by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) says doctors turning up to work wanting to give their best when too unwell is unsurprising considering the chronic workload and time pressures doctors face.

However, it says the behaviour also stems from a stigma deeply entrenched in the medical profession’s culture that doctors do not raise their own health concerns, take time off sick, and must always present as a picture of health and strength to the community.

This perpetuates an almost superhuman belief system, known as the ‘Superdoctor Syndrome’.

The report says trying to live up to the ‘Superdoctor’ expectation can lead to burnout, mental health issues, longer term sickness and increased medicolegal risk, as doctors who continue to work while unfit to do so are more likely to make mistakes.

In the MPS survey, more than 25% suspect that emotional exhaustion has contributed to an irreversible clinical error, with 67% of them saying this was due to a lack of concentration.

It calls on health organisations and practice managers to aid a shift to a culture which frames legitimate sick leave by doctors as responsible and healthy behaviour – and ensure their policies and procedures do not create a barrier to doctors taking time off.   

Professor Dame Jane Dacre, MPS President, said: “Doctors are notoriously reluctant to take time off when they are sick, even though they would regularly advise patients to stay off work under the same circumstances.  It is hardly surprising that doctors behave in this way – the working environment is challenging and relentless and doctors want to do their best for their patients – this is evident from our survey as 46% agree or strongly agree that they feel guilty when taking time off.

“Medical training has also historically resulted in many doctors measuring themselves against a superhuman benchmark, resulting in the ‘Superdoctor Syndrome’ where doctors expect the unachievable of themselves. Those who find themselves in this situation have an increased risk of burnout, mental health issues, making errors that could lead to an adverse patient outcome and taking long-term sickness absence.”

The report suggests employers should have procedures in place to cope with workload in the event of a doctor’s unplanned absence, and there should be policies to enforce absence when necessary.

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