UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences


Work stress turns doctors to alcohol and binge-eating

16 May 2019

One in 20 doctors (5%) are alcohol dependent and just over half (53%) drink two or more times a week, according to a new study by UCL and Birkbeck, University of London.


Work stress was found to be a factor in doctors abusing alcohol or having alcohol dependence. Just over a third (34%) of doctors saying that they use substances to feel better and around one in five (22%) using substances to get through stressful events.

“Work-related stress is often ignored as not being a priority but our research shows that stress among doctors is associated with health problems and risky health behaviours like alcohol use,” said lead author Dr Asta Medisauskaite (UCL Medical School).

“Stress can no longer be ignored because it can lead to doctors suffering severe health problems and losing even one doctor is a great loss for the NHS.”

The findings, published today in BMJ Open, come as part of a larger study which looked at the effects of work-related stress on doctors’ health.

The researchers found that 55% of doctors meet the criteria for burnout. The study found that work stress is giving doctors sleepless nights, with burnout nearly doubling the risk of insomnia. Overall 12% of doctors were found to have insomnia.

Work stress was also found to increase the risk of doctors suffering ill health, with work-life imbalance nearly doubling the risk of doctors experiencing frequent diarrhoea.

The study revealed that doctors who rely on substances to cope with stress are 18 times more likely to drink alcohol 2-3 times or more a week and three times more likely to binge-drink on a typical drinking day.

Whereas the prevalence of alcohol use and dependence among doctors is lower than the general population average, the study found that more doctors (8%) have a binge-eating disorder compared to the UK population average (3%). One in three doctors have binge-eating symptoms, and one in three doctors reported feeling embarrassed, depressed or disgusted with their overeating.

Doctors who work in hospitals were found to be nearly twice at risk of binge-drinking on a typical drinking day than doctors who work in community or other settings.

Co-author Dr Caroline Kamau from Birkbeck said: “Our research shows that 55% of doctors have burnout and this has real health consequences. Doctors are not to blame for having burnout. It is a normal, human reaction to external stressors so doctors must not be stigmatised. What we need is for the NHS to solve the causes of burnout and prevent it from harming the health of our doctors.”

The study surveyed 417 UK medical doctors with an average age of 47 years. 49% of the doctors were consultant-grade, 18% were GPs and 20% junior doctors.

In a related study published last month in Psychiatry Research, the same two researchers conducted a randomised control trial, where they taught doctors that distress is a normal, human reaction.*

Their simple intervention significantly reduced anxiety and two types of burnout among doctors.

They have now developed a smart-phone app based on their intervention, in collaboration with Focus Games, called Working Stress.** The app is being trialled in over 10 NHS Trusts.




Media contact 

Chris Lane

tel: +44 20 7679 9222

E: chris.lane [at] ucl.ac.uk