Sick doctors returning to work struggle with feelings of shame and failure

October 15, 2012

Doctors who have been on long term sick leave find it hard to return to work because they are overwhelmed with feelings of shame and failure, and fear the disapproval of colleagues, finds research published in the online journal BMJ Open.

The authors call for cultural change, starting in , to allow to recognise their own vulnerabilities and cope better with both their own and their colleagues' ill health.

The authors carried out semi-structured interviews with 19 doctors, all of whom had been on sick leave for six months or more within the past year. Their ages ranged from 27 to 67, with the average age 46.

All but one doctor had a mental health or addiction problem, which included depression, anxiety, disorder and . Seven also had physical health problems.

Fourteen of the doctors had come to the attention of the doctors' professional regulator, the .

The main themes to emerge during the interviews, which lasted between 1 and 3 hours, were professional identity; relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues; and the way in which they perceived themselves.

Illness had taken many of the interviewees by surprise and had shattered their professional identity.

One doctor said that without this, he realised "there wasn't much left of me." Another described it as having "everything taken from you."

Several doctors described good levels of support from friends and family, but many reported the opposite, and felt that they had become "a nuisance," or "an outsider in my own family," or that they were no longer highly thought of.

Some said they deliberately hid their illness (and its treatment) from their families because they feared that coming clean would have a detrimental impact on their .

Some doctors said that they did feel supported by work colleagues, but not especially by other doctors.

One commented: "We're meant to be caring people, but we don't seem to care about each other at all, in my experience."

said that they felt "judged," and perceived as "weak," and that others considered they were no longer fit to be a doctor because they had become ill.

They frequently described feelings of emptiness, guilt, shame and failure, and blamed themselves for what had happened.

When they experienced difficulties, once back at work, their confidence plummeted, which further worsened their self esteem and made work even harder to cope with, they said.

The authors point out that doctors' rates of mental ill health, drug and alcohol misuse and suicide are at least as high as those of the general population, but the prevailing culture in medicine is that they are "invincible."

This must change, say the authors. "Aspects of personal and colleague health, especially mental health, should be part of the curriculum for all medical students," they write.

And they conclude that:"Doctors must learn to provide themselves and their colleagues with the same level of excellent care that they provide for their patients."

Explore further: Doctors cite concern for patients, colleagues top motives for working sick

More information: Shame! Self-stigmatisation as an obstacle to sick doctors returning to work: a qualitative study, doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001776

Related Stories

Doctors cite concern for patients, colleagues top motives for working sick

June 18, 2012
An unwavering work ethic is a hallmark of many health professionals. But a new survey finds that when a doctor is sick, staunch dedication can have unintended consequences.

Caution advised when considering patient and colleague feedback on doctors

October 28, 2011
Official assessments of a doctor's professionalism should be considered carefully before being accepted due to the tendency for some doctors to receive lower scores than others, and the tendency of some groups of patient ...

Huge potential of NHS junior doctors being ignored

January 27, 2012
Junior doctors in the NHS are willing and able to help improve health services, but they don't feel valued or heard, reveals the results of a regional survey published online in BMJ Quality and Safety.

Referral to talking therapies may cut use of health services and sick leave

October 3, 2011
Referring patients with mental health problems to talking therapies seems to cut their use of healthcare services and the amount of sick leave they take, suggests research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and ...

Recommended for you

Hormone therapy in the menopause transition did not increase stroke risk

November 24, 2017
Postmenopausal hormone therapy is not associated with increased risk of stroke, provided that it is started early, according to a report from Karolinska Institutet published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

When traveling on public transport, you may want to cover your ears

November 22, 2017
The noise levels commuters are exposed to while using public transport or while biking, could induce hearing loss if experienced repeatedly and over long periods of time, according to a study published in the open access ...

Different types of alcohol elicit different emotional responses

November 22, 2017
Different types of alcohol elicit different emotional responses, but spirits are most frequently associated with feelings of aggression, suggests research published in the online journal BMJ Open.

Air pollution linked to poorer quality sperm

November 22, 2017
Air pollution, particularly levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), is associated with poorer quality sperm, suggests research published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Sunrise and sunset guide daily activities of city-dwellers

November 21, 2017
Despite artificial lightning and social conventions, the dynamics of daylight still influence the daily activities of people living in modern, urban environments, according to new research published in PLOS Computational ...

Older men need more protein to maintain muscles

November 21, 2017
The amount of protein recommended by international guidelines is not sufficient to maintain muscle size and strength in older men, according to a new study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.