A recent article in the BMJ pondered “Why Doctors Don’t take Sick leave”

Below are some anecdotes and ideas about why Doctors find it difficult to take sick leave or simply ignore their own illness ……….following an article recently published in the BMJ 

Why doctors don’t take sick leave

Authors: Kathy Oxtoby

Publication date:  09 Dec 2015

Doctors seem reluctant to take time off when unwell. Kathy Oxtoby considers the reasons

Doctors are much less likely than other healthcare workers to take days off sick, with official figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showing that they take a third as many sick days as other NHS staff and a fifth the number taken by healthcare assistants and ambulance staff.[1]

It may be that doctors are less prone to becoming ill, rather than being less likely to take sick leave when ill. The high socioeconomic status of doctors might put them at lower risk of illness…………..But Keith Hopcroft, a GP in Essex, says that there is a culture in medicine of not taking time off when sick. “Battling on through illness and not letting the side down has traditionally been seen as an attribute—and therefore taking time off as a weakness—particularly in the days of onerous on-call rotas,” he says. “This attitude is changing somewhat, and ‘self awareness’ and ‘fitness to practise’ are more meaningful concepts than they used to be.”

“Desperate that nobody finds out”

Many doctors work despite being unwell because they are concerned that taking time off will negatively affect their career. Cosmo Hallstrom, a consultant psychiatrist who is based in London and working in private practice after 25 years in the NHS, has doctors attending his clinic with anxiety and depression who are “desperate that nobody finds out,” he says.

Hopcroft says that another reason why doctors don’t take sick leave is that some treat themselves or use their contacts to help treat them. “Doctors may have a better idea of what’s wrong with them or how significant, or insignificant, it is and therefore may not need to worry themselves with appointments or requests for treatment,” ………

Concern about letting down colleagues

Keir Shiels, a paediatric registrar at Queen’s Hospital, Romford, says that he has worked while ill to avoid making colleagues’ lives more difficult. “When you ring in an hour before work, and nobody is there to cover your shift and you know they will have to find someone at short notice, it’s a pain for everyone, and so you think twice about taking sick leave,” he says. He believes that doctors who are starting out in their careers are particularly prone to viewing being off sick “as some sort of moral failure and that you’re letting your colleagues down.”

Clare Gerada, medical director of the Practitioner Health Programme, a health service aimed specifically at doctors, says that the feeling of letting people down applies to patients as well as colleagues. “If I was sick now, how would I leave a morning surgery when 25 patients are there to see me and there is nobody to cover you?”……….Self employed GPs must also consider the practical aspects of taking time off sick, he adds. “Being self employed, and working in relatively small teams with appointments booked ahead, being off has a significant impact on our immediate colleagues,” he says. “There are also the financial and logistical implications of finding locums, too, all of which means we try to avoid being off sick when we can.”……………“If I was sick now, how would I leave a morning surgery when 25 patients are there to see me and there is nobody to cover you?”—Clare Gerada

Not taking time off sick is simply because doctors enjoy their role so much they would prefer to be at work ( This really did make me laugh out loud…..perhaps a quote from an Australian GP)

● See also on careers.bmj.com The wounded healer—why we need to rethink how we support doctors ( [Link] )

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.


  1. Health and Social Care Information Centre. NHS sickness absence rates January 2015 to March 2015. Jul 2015. [Link] .
  2. Stephenson J. The Practitioner Health Programme. BMJ Careers  25 Mar 2009. [Link] .

Kathy Oxtoby freelance journalist


Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi:
Danielle Offri writing in the NY Times ……. gives her opinion on Doctors sick leave.

……….So most doctors ignore their symptoms and resist taking the day off unless they are sick enough to be hospitalized in the next bed over.

This, of course, is ridiculous behavior on the part of medical professionals who would never recommend such nonsense to their patients. Medical workers with respiratory infections are contagious. Caregivers with gastrointestinal infections — as I had — can easily infect their patients.

A 2005 outbreak of the norovirus stomach bug in a nursing home highlighted the role of medical personnel in spreading communicable disease. The most disturbing aspect of the case was that medical staff members continued to come to work while ill, well into the outbreak, despite strenuous and public exhortations to stay home. This may have prolonged the outbreak and led to more patients’ falling ill.

A survey of British doctors back in the ’90s found that 87 percent of G.P.’s said they would not call in sick for a severe cold (compared to 32 percent of office workers who were asked the same question). In Norway, a 2001 survey revealed that 80 percent of doctors had reported to work while sick with illnesses for which they would have advised their own patients to stay home. Two-thirds of these illnesses were considered contagious.


‘Doctors don’t take sick leave’

I’m writing this from my sick bed. I’m not exactly at Death’s door, but if you’d asked me last night I’d have pictured myself somewhere on his front lawn, just by the ornamental bird bath and demonic gnomes brandishing sickles. That’s viruses for you. They mess with your mind…………

………….. My impenetrable Cone of Solitude had a 100% success rate in protecting this everyday GP from everyday respiratory infections. Now I’m stuck at home on my day off, sweating something out and mainlining NSAIDs, honey, lemon and bourbon. As we all know, Doctors Don’t Take Sick Leave, even when we really should. We’re not nurses. But the session I worked yesterday afternoon, when any sane person would’ve been on the sofa watching reruns of Escape to Jeremy Kyle’s Antiques Roadtrip, is/was a bit of a blur.

I’m pretty sure it involved people with coughs and colds. I don’t recall doing much for any of them.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield.


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