A recent Medical Protection survey of more than 500 South African healthcare professionals found that more than 40% of doctors feel burned out.

Doctors help their patients with mental health issues, but suffer alone themselves.

Nearly 50% of respondents said they experience a heavier workload and struggle to achieve an appropriate work/life balance or that they have no work/life balance at all, and 34% said they experience more stress and anxiety.

Furthermore, 85% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that patient expectations have increased in the last five years, and nearly 60% said they find it challenging to manage unrealistic patient expectations.

They are also practising in a more litigious society, all of which are impacting on their emotional health, and yet few seek support – in some cases due to the perceived stigma attached to mental health issues.

“Being a doctor is not only physically and intellectually demanding, but also emotionally draining. Doctors have to make difficult decisions daily, alongside fewer resources and rising patient expectations.

“The fact that so many are feeling burned out is very worrying,” said Dr Graham Howarth, head of Medical Services, Africa at Medical Protection.


The following might be warning signs of potential burnout:

Are you physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted?

Have you lost your ability to care, empathise or to connect with your patients, staff and co-workers?

Are you beginning to doubt that your work really makes any difference?

Do you question the quality of the work you are doing? (Women seem more prone to question the quality of their work than men).

  • Do you have a poor work/life balance?
  • Are you hypersensitive or completely insensitive to emotional material?
  • Are you avoiding contact with friends, family, and other loved ones?
  • Have you lost interest in activities that you previously enjoyed?
  • Have you experienced changes in your sleep patterns?
  • Are you getting sick more often?
  • Does everything and everyone irritate you?


According to the American organisation, Preventative Medicine, adopting healthy behaviours can prevent burnout. They suggest the following simple measures to start your journey on taking better care of yourself:

Practicing good self-care will significantly help your resilience and reduce your vulnerability to stress. Practical ways to do that include:

  • Eating a balanced, healthy diet
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week (two of which should be devoted to resistance training)
  • Schedule when you are going to sleep (read our article on page 8 in which Dr Allison Bentley gives practical advice on how to improve sleep)
  • Ensure that you maintain a balance between work and your personal life (don’t take your work home with you)
  • Drink alcohol in moderation


Positive coping strategies can be used at work or at home to help ease your response to stressful situations. Try to incorporate the following into your daily life (it doesn’t have to take hours, studies show that devoting 10 minutes a day to mindful meditation can greatly reduce your stress):

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Taking a walk
  • Talking with a friend
  • Relaxing in a hot bath


If you still feel that you are not getting enough out of mindful techniques, and are still feeling emotionally vulnerable, chronically stressed and overwhelmed, seek help. Doctors help their patients with mental health problems, but they often suffer alone. The experience can be isolating and can have a negative impact on professional confidence, noted Dr Howarth.

He urged colleagues of doctors to look out for signs of burnout or mental health problems and offer support, such as talking through issues or helping to balance their workload. Healthcare organisations are also urged to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their doctors.

“It is important that doctors know that seeking help will not automatically lead to a referral to the HPCSA or put their careers at risk. Colleagues should provide support to those who may be struggling and in the interests of providing the best care to their patients. Doctors must seek help as soon as they experience difficulties,” said Dr Howarth.