Well over a year since the covid-19 pandemic hit, health workers speak out about their burnout.  

SADAG (South African Anxiety and Depression Groups) in partnership with Atlantic Fellows, based at Tekano, hosted a Q&A panel where three young South African doctors shared their lived experiences as front-line workers, on the heels of the release of documentary, A Quiet Implosion on May 27, 2021. 

A Quiet Implosion, produced by Dr Cyan Brown, explores the various demands of the medical field and, how this has been enhanced by the pandemic, looking particularly at the overreliance on frontline workers. Burnout has negative effects on the relationships, family, mental health and the physical health of doctors and health care workers.  

“We cannot safeguard the health of our patients if burnout is normalized, and exhaustion is seen as a status symbol.” says Dr Brown in the media release for the launch.  

In the documentary, Dr Nicholas Thompson speaks to how both the long hours and mental exhaustion began to affect his relationship with his work, “The first red flag was when I stopped caring and just going through the motions.” 

This is a common trend among doctors, according to a 2018 Medscape burnout and depression report more than 42% of doctors suffer from burnout. The reasons cited include long hours, admin pressures and a lack of professional respect from colleagues.  

Another key finding was that depression affects almost half of all physician’s engagement with their peers, an issue that Dr Thomson believes needs to be changed through honest discussion, which starts with a need to “recognise and acknowledge it and discuss it with the people around you”. 

The covid-19 pandemic brought to the fore the, at times, extreme pressure medical workers have experienced in their field, where burnout and mental health issues are commonplace and many are expected to ‘just handle it’ because they have chosen this career. 

“[The pandemic] shone a light on what has already existed. The concept of doctors being more than human,” says Dr Anesu Mbizvo, one of the doctors in the documentary. 

Dr Mbizvo cites the awareness that came with the high volume of frontline workers contracting the virus as a positive that came from the pandemic, as it elevated the need to take better care of doctors in general. In South Africa, over 27,000 frontline workers contracted covid-19 by August 2020, according to health minister Zweli Mkhize. 

Dr Brown added that there is a “need for a healthcare system which values its members and does not dehumanise them”, as spending over 200 hours of involuntary work per month leaves junior doctors with symptoms of burnout.  

“The documentary [was made] as a response to shift this narrative as there is a normalisation of doctors [being dehumanized] in the medical field.” 

Advising those starting out in the field, Dr Mbizvo suggested internalising what has been taught, “We do a whole block on mental health so it’s something we’re familiar with”.  

Discovery and SADAG launched the Discovery Medical Students and Young Doctor’s Helpline in 2017, a pro-active online mental health initiative for medical students with a 24-hour free toll-line. Here, young doctors have a safe space to speak about their mental health and develop coping strategies with trained helpline counsellors.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Doctor. Photo: File