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

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

High-dose vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles for children

July 18, 2017
Giving children high doses of vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles, a new study has found.

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.