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Dealing with burnout

02 December 2019
Volume 27 · Issue 12


An ongoing problem for midwives, but how can it be best addressed?

In their study of physician stress, Hannan et al (2018) note that in 1974, the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term ‘burnout’, defining it as ‘a state of mental and physical exhaustion related to caregiving’ and describing its three key symptoms as ‘emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (or feeling distanced and detached from work), and a sense of low personal accomplishment leading to decreased effectiveness at work’.

In a recently published survey of almost 2 000 UK midwives, Hunter et al (2019) found that many ‘are experiencing high levels of stress, burnout, anxiety and depression, which should be of serious concern to the profession and its leaders. NHS-employed clinical midwives are at much greater risk of emotional distress than others surveyed…’, with 83% experiencing moderate to high personal burnout, and 67% experiencing moderate to high work-related burnout.

Many years ago, I worked in a busy NHS hospital virus diagnostic laboratory, where changing work practices contributed to high-stress levels. Back then, succumbing to stress was considered a sign of weakness, with increased ‘phoning in sick’ and absenteeism typical responses. So, it was interesting to read an editorial by Garelick (2012) who draws attention to ‘presenteeism’ among those who seldom take sick leave but opt to continue to work, out of a sense of loyalty to their colleagues. But as the title of Garelick's editorial implies, both professional discomfort and a sense of stigma remain attached to those who experience stress and burnout.

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