Locum optometrist guide

A “hidden pandemic” in the spotlight

Optometrist Neil Retallic discusses his PhD research that will examine mental wellbeing and levels of burnout among optometrists in the UK

animation of two people. One person sitting at the desk and the other on the sofa.

A new UK study is examining mental wellbeing among UK optometrists, in the wake of Australian research that found 30% of practising optometrists were experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress.

The Australian study, which was published in Ophthalmic & Physiological Optics in 2021, involved a survey of 505 optometrists.

Around one in three (30%) survey respondents were experiencing anxiety or depression, while more than half reported symptoms of burnout – such as exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of professional efficacy.

Optometrists who were younger than 30 were three and a half times more likely to report moderate to severe psychological distress than those older than 30.

The researchers concluded that rates of mental health conditions and burnout among practising Australian optometrists were high compared with the general population.

Study lead, Professor Sharon Bentley, of Queensland University of Technology, told OT that the survey was conducted in response to optometrists with mental health conditions either reducing their working hours or leaving the profession.

She shared that the findings regarding levels of psychological distress among young professionals were particularly striking.

“So many participants reached out to thank us for conducting the study and bringing attention to the matter,” she said.

The research found that the most frequently mentioned work-related issues concerned retail pressures, workload and career dissatisfaction.

If we know more, we will know how we can support people

Neil Retallic, optometrist and University of Bradford PhD researcher

Asked for her thoughts on potential workplace modifications that could support mental wellbeing, Bentley shared the value of ensuring optometrists have a manageable workload, regular breaks, peer support and professional development opportunities.

She also highlighted the benefits of graduate optometrist support programmes and flexible work arrangements.

UK research

With Bentley as his supervisor, optometrist Neil Retallic is now examining similar questions in a UK context as part of his PhD through the University of Bradford.

A three-month survey, which launched in April, aims to gather 500 responses from practising optometrists in the UK and Ireland.

Retallic shared with OT that around one in five UK adults are experiencing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

“It has been described as the hidden pandemic,” he said.

“The stigma around mental health is starting to disappear so people are more willing to express their emotions and talk. That is a good thing,” Retallic shared.

He became interested in conducting a companion survey to the Australian research after finding little peer-reviewed research on the topic.

As well as finding out the extent of the challenges through an online survey, Retallic hopes to conduct qualitative interviews to understand what the risk factors are that trigger burnout.

“Hopefully we can come up with some interventions that the profession, employers and individuals can use,” he shared.

“If we know more, we will know how we can support people,” Retallic emphasised.

For locum optometrists in particular, Retallic shared that the unpredictability of work and the potential for loneliness can create challenges.
“You’re not forming networks in the same way that employed peers are,” he said.

“There are positives too, of course. There’s the flexibility and freedom of being your own boss that can support wellbeing,” he shared.

Optometrists who are practising in the UK and Ireland can complete the anonymous 10-minute survey online. The survey closes on 31 July.