Over 60% of emergency medicine professionals in 89 countries have at least one symptom of burnout syndrome, and 31.2% have two, according to a survey carried out by the European Society for Emergency Medicine (EUSEM).

The survey, published in the European Journal of Emergency Medicine, shows that the chronic problems faced by emergency medicine specialists, such as understaffing, limited resources, overcrowding, and lack of recognition have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic.

Many of those affected by burnout were also thinking of a career change and that this was more prevalent among younger professionals than those who were older and more experienced. This would necessarily lead to understaffing, at least in the short term, and would only make matters worse for those who remain.

Urgent measures to reduce burnout

EUSEM President Dr Abdo Khoury, from the Department of Emergency Medicine and Critical Care, Besançon University Hospital, Besançon, France, said: “The level of burnout found means that these healthcare workers deserve professional clinical evaluation and support. Worryingly, less than half of responders to the survey (41.4%) reported having access to such psychological support, either face to face or at a distance.

 “Burnout in healthcare professionals may lead to alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another common manifestation of burnout, and this can have devastating long-term consequences for the individual.”

Emergency medicine specialists have been first-line responders during the pandemic, providing triage of patients in extremely difficult and pressurised circumstances where, additionally, the spread of infection must be prevented. The need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and the resulting fear of being infected themselves has been a supplementary burden that may still be insufficiently recognised.

“Healthcare authorities quite rightly put patient satisfaction and well-being at the top of their priority list. Yet the overwhelming evidence is that medical professionals have unmet needs too, and that these are growing exponentially. An important social determinant of health is the exposure - or the lack of it – to stressful living conditions. It would be difficult to find a group of people who were more subjected to stress during the pandemic than EM specialists,” say the paper’s authors.

"Many interventions have been shown to be effective in decreasing burnout, and we were disappointed to see how few appear to be being implemented at present. The pandemic has shown how essential they are."

The paper concluded that urgent measures to reduce burnout and therefore to encourage those thinking of leaving the profession to reconsider are needed.