The impact of long shifts on the mental state of a doctor

The impact of long shifts on the mental state of a doctor

Working long hours is a common practice among doctors, especially those in training. However, this practice may have serious consequences for their mental health and well-being, as well as for patient safety and quality of care. In this blog post, we will explore the evidence on how long shifts affect the mental state of doctors, and what can be done to prevent and address this issue.

What are long shifts and why do doctors work them?

Long shifts are defined as working hours that exceed 12 hours per day or 55 hours per week. Doctors may work long shifts for various reasons, such as:

– Staff shortages and high workload
– Lack of flexibility and control over their schedules
– Professional culture and expectations
– Financial incentives and personal preferences

However, working long shifts may have negative impacts on doctors’ physical and mental health, such as:

– Fatigue and sleep deprivation
– Increased stress and burnout
– Reduced cognitive performance and decision making
– Increased risk of errors and adverse events
– Impaired mood and emotional regulation
– Increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation
– Reduced quality of life and satisfaction

How does working long shifts affect the mental state of doctors?

Several studies have examined the association between working long shifts and the mental health of doctors. A recent study based on data from the 2013 Beyond Blue National Mental Health Survey showed that doctors in training who work more than 55 hours each week have double the risk of developing mental health problems and suicidal ideation. Another study based on data from two NHS trusts in England showed that as the proportion of nursing staff on a ward working 12 hour plus shifts rose above 70 percent daily, the number of incidents of self-harm, threatening behavior and violence against staff on that same day increased significantly. These findings suggest that working long shifts may impair doctors’ ability to cope with the emotional demands of their work, and increase their vulnerability to psychological distress and harm.

What can be done to prevent and address the impact of long shifts on the mental state of doctors?

There is no simple solution to the problem of long shifts and their impact on the mental state of doctors. However, some possible strategies that may help include:

– Implementing evidence-based safe working hours policies and practices that limit the duration and frequency of long shifts, and ensure adequate rest periods and breaks
– Providing flexibility and choice for doctors over their working hours, rosters and leave arrangements
– Creating mentally healthy workplaces that support doctors’ education and training, address bullying and harassment, promote positive feedback and recognition, and provide access to confidential counselling and support services
– Encouraging doctors to seek help when they experience signs of mental health problems or suicidal ideation, and reducing stigma and barriers to accessing care
– Enhancing doctors’ resilience and coping skills through education, training, mentoring and peer support
– Fostering a culture of care and compassion among doctors, colleagues, managers and patients


Working long shifts is a common but potentially harmful practice among doctors. It may affect their mental state in various ways, such as increasing their risk of psychological distress, self-harm and suicide. To prevent and address this issue, it is important to implement safe working hours policies and practices, create mentally healthy workplaces, provide support for doctors in need, and promote a culture of care among the medical profession.


: Dall’Ora C et al., ‘Nursing 12-Hour Shifts and Patient Incidents in Mental Health and Community Hospitals: A Longitudinal Study Using Routinely Collected Data’, Journal of Nursing Management (2023)
: Length of doctor shifts at alarming levels – ABC News

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