Longer work hours linked to increased risk of mental ill health and suicidal ideation in junior doctors

11 Feb 2020

Junior doctors who work long hours are at twice the risk of experiencing mental illness or suicide, compared to junior doctors who work fewer hours, according to new research. 

The AMA is calling for urgent action to support doctors in training, with this research reinforcing that long working hours and fatigue are putting the future medical workforce at greater risk of poor mental health and suicide ideation.

Published in the British Medical Journal’s BMJ Open, the research shows that doctors in training who work more than 55 hours each week have double the risk of developing mental health problems and suicidal ideation.

AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said the research - based on data from the highly respected 2013 Beyond Blue National Mental Health Survey - highlights the ongoing need for governments and authorities to tackle long working hours for doctors in training.

“A healthy medical profession is vital to patient safety and quality of care, and the sustainability of the medical workforce,” Dr Bartone said.

Chief psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute and UNSW Associate Professor Samuel Harvey said researchers were expecting to find a link between work hours and mental health, but they were "surprised by just how strong that link was". 

The 2016 AMA Safe Hours Audit report showed that the previous trend towards safer working hours for doctors had stalled, with 53 per cent of doctors at significant risk of fatigue. This mirrored the results of the 2011 AMA Safe Hours Audit.

In the extreme, unbroken shifts of up to 76-hours were reported, as well as working weeks of up to 118 hours.

The impact of long working hours on doctors in training is compounded as they also must manage the competing demands of work, study and exams.

The AMA’s National Code of Practice - Hours of Work, Shiftwork and Rostering for Hospital Doctors (the Code) was revised in 2016. It provides practical guidance on how to manage fatigue and eliminate or minimise the risks associated with shiftwork and extended working hours.  The AMA recommends that this should be adopted as the minimum standard by all States and Territories.

The BMJ Open research paper is available at https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e033525

Read the AMA’s National Code of Practice - Hours of Work, Shiftwork and Rostering for Hospital Doctors

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