Surgeons should be given regular emotional intelligence testing and training in order to halt the burnout “epidemic” taking hold across the profession, according to a leading psychologist.
Dr Lorna Bourke, principal lecturer in psychology at Liverpool Hope University, suggested that this type of training twice-yearly would reduce the stigma associated with reaching out for emotional support and would lead to better health outcomes for both surgeons and patients.
Mental health in the NHS
While she recognised that emotional intelligence was factored into medical degrees, Bourke said it needed to form part of a surgeon’s ongoing professional development.
She said: “These are committed, resilient, driven individuals who are being lost to the profession while at their peak. For a surgeon, a ‘bad day at the office’ would be a typical person’s worst nightmare. Yet they often regulate their emotions by putting up a barrier without processing it properly, which can create real problems.
“We need a system where surgeons are given regular Emotional Intelligence testing and training, and strategies put in place to help them – where they can really talk about what they’ve been through, without them feeling as if they need to mask it.”
A study conducted by Bourke and two surgeons based in Australia, which was published in the ANZ Journal of Surgery, found that higher levels of emotional intelligence – the ability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of those around them – could reduce feelings of stress and burnout, improve leadership and enhance patient trust.
Last year the Royal College of Surgeons said those in the profession needed to be better equipped to recognise the signs that their mental health was at risk. It indicated that surgeons suffering from burnout “can begin to treat others as if they were impersonal object, not really caring about colleagues or work”.
“[Emotional intelligence training]needs to be treated like going to the dentist – normalised, where surgeons can check in, or request more sessions, if they think it would be beneficial,” said Bourke.
“You have mental health practitioners in the hospital setting – but medics may be reluctant to access them because of the stigma associated with seeking help. Emotional intelligence lessons are, instead, a way to start destigmatising the issue.”