Extremely high levels of depersonalisation found among registrars with burnout symptoms at the School of Clinical Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand was said to be a “worrisome” finding of a study conducted by the university’s Department of Family Medicine.

Depersonalisation (DP), study author Cathelijn Zeijlemaker explained in a paper presented at last week’s SA Association of Family Physicians conference in Midrand, was one of the three major elements of burnout, the others being emotional exhaustion (EE) and personal accomplishment (PA).

What made the study findings all the more concerning, she added, was that the levels of all three elements found locally were higher than those reflected in other investigations covered in both the national and international literature.

Pointing out that only limited research had been done regarding prevalence of burnout amongst registrars in South Africa, she noted that the Wits investigation was conducted to describe not only its prevalence but also to assess relationships between burnout and socio-demographic factors.

To achieve this, a cross-sectional descriptive, internet survey was conducted. Respondents were registrars within the departments of the School of Clinical Medicine at the University. To measure burnout the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) was used, while relationships were assessed by independent samples t-test and ANOVA.

A total of 585 emails were delivered, 201 registrars started the survey (response rate 34%), and 170 questionnaires were analysed. The mean age of the respondents was 33 years and the male to female ratio, 1:1.8.

Moving on to the results, Zeijlemaker showed that the average score for EE was 3,5 (SD1.2), for DP 2.7 (SD1.1) and for PA 4.1 (SD1.1): “The overall level of burnout was 84%. None of the respondents scored low over all categories. No significant association between socio-demographics (e.g. age, sex, discipline, year in the program and experience) and MBI dimensions was found.”

In the concluding remarks it was noted that the extremely high levels of DP was particularly “worrisome” as DP affects professionalism and engagement of doctors.

“In keeping with the literature, no associations were found between socio-demographic factors and burnout, suggesting the cause of burnout should truly be sought out in the work environment.

“Efforts to improve autonomy in the workspace, development of opportunities and promoting peer collaboration,” she advised, therefore, “are needed to prevent burnout.”