How Are Doctors Doing?

The health care system is pushing doctors to exhaustion and depression.

The working conditions and professional culture are largely responsible for the “high levels” of exhaustion and cases of depression reported by doctors across the country, according to a study published by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) in October 2019.

These are the alarming results of a survey conducted in 2017 that led the CMA to try to find the causes of the psychological malaise reported by Canadian doctors. “Between one-quarter and one-third of doctors reported high levels of burnout,” explains Caroline Gérin-Lajoie, an oncology psychiatrist and vice-president for physician health and wellness at the CMA.

In its report Physician Health and Well-Being in Canada: Behavioural and Professional Factors Predicting Psychological Outcomes, the organization states that individual actions have limited scope to reduce the risks of depression, burnout and suicidal ideation.

“[Ten years ago] we tended to look just at the individual, we blamed the doctors,” says Dr. Gérin-Lajoie. “We said, it’s easy, sleep better, do yoga, exercise more and you will be able to be more resilient in our very stressful system.”

Rather, it is the culture of physician’s workplaces and the resources available to them that help prevent stress among the caregivers. “There are elements of our culture that are harmful to our health,” says the psychiatrist.

(Poor) work-life balance at issue 
The study argues that the lack of integration between professional and personal life, career dissatisfaction and the lack of collegiality between doctors also negatively affects doctors’ psychological health.

Another disturbing sign: 20% of doctors reported suffering from “presenteeism”, that is, when a doctor comes to work while not being in the right state of health (mental or physical). “This is largely due to the medical system, which does not easily allow doctors to take the time to take care of themselves,” says Caroline Gérin-Lajoie.

According to the psychiatrist, the ageing population, technological changes in the workplace and budget cuts mean that doctors’ stress has increased tenfold. “The system is extremely stressed and pushed to the maximum,” she says. “This is why we see so much burnout.”

“What motivates a doctor is the deep satisfaction of helping a patient, and when you have the impression that it cannot be done it is a huge psychological burden,” the doctor concludes.

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