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Doctors plagued by depression and anxiety, UKZN study finds

As people find their mental health under strain, wading through uncharted water, doing their best to remain positive in the face of adversity, how are those in the medical field coping? How are doctors, nurses and other hospital staff dealing with the COVID-19 crisis?

According to a UKZN study by Dr Thejini Naidoo, a psychiatry registrar based at the King Edward VIII hospital; there is a high pervasiveness of burnout, anxiety and depression among medical doctors in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Her study was conducted in 5 public sector training hospitals in KZN, and forms part of her Masters of Medicine degree specialising in Psychiatry.

But just how serious is the situation and what did she discover in her study?

Out of the 150 participants, 88 screened positive for burnout indicated by emotional exhaustion or depersonalisation. One-fifth of the group also screened positive for anxiety and depressive symptoms.

This is a rather disturbing figure, as it resonates precisely how medical professionals are placing their welfare aside in an attempt to care for others.

Furthermore, Naidoo’s study indicates that burnout comprised of 3 components. The components include emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and personal accomplishment.

The emotional exhaustion, which was experienced, consists of long periods of emotional and physical fatigue.

Depersonalisation refers to feelings of negativity and detachment from the job. Personal incompetence was found to be had by those medical doctors who experienced feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement at work. Contributing factors to both individual and organisational factors associated with burnout include work stress and anxiety, balancing work and personal life, as well as long working hours, high workloads, poor working conditions, public system-related frustrations, insufficient holiday time, inadequate equipment, poor management support and low work satisfaction.

In her study, Naidoo stresses that these factors also have an adverse impact on the care of patients. They also play a role in increasing the risk for psychiatric co-morbidities such as suicide, anxiety and depression.

At an individual level, Naidoo emphasises doctors should embrace mindfulness, stress management, exercise, communication skills training and participation in small group programmes oriented around promoting and building a community.

Additionally, at an organisational level, she believes measures need to be implemented. According to Naidoo, these measures should include reducing working hours and workload. Steps should also be put in to place to improve institutional support and advocacy for peer support with a focus on junior doctors.

With the study reflecting the struggles which medical professionals face, all the while caring for the community, it has become paramount to remember frontline workers during these trying times.

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