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How Many Hours Do Doctors Work? (Real-Life Figures)

How Many Hours Do Doctors Work? (Real-Life Figures)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

We’ve all heard stories of the horrendous number of hours that doctors have had to work- from twenty four hours on-call, to seven-day-weeks, to non-stop shifts.

But is all this a thing of the past? Or very much still a reality? How many hours do doctors actually work in today’s NHS?

On average, a doctor in the UK is contracted to work 40 hours per week. This figure however varies depending on whether the doctor is in training, what specialty they work in and their individual contract. Many doctors also work uncontracted overtime on a regular basis.

It’s got to be said, the reality of a doctor’s daily working hours can be a far cry from the quoted 40-hour figure.

Although things have certainly gotten better compared to the past, there’s still a lot to be desired when it comes to a doctor’s work-life balance.

In this article, I’ve explored why a doctor’s contracted hours don’t always tell the full story and what influences how long you might be stuck at work as a doctor.

How Many Hours A Week Do Doctors Work?

As I say, the average number of hours a doctor will be contracted to work is approximately 40.

Consultants (i.e. doctors who have completed their training) generally have job plans that use a currency of ‘programmed activities’ or PAs.

So a full-time contract is generally for 10 PAs worth of work. Now consultants can choose to work fewer than 10 (part-time) or more than 10 PAs at their discretion.

Where it gets slightly confusing is the fact that a PA isn’t one set length of time:

  • A PA worked between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday is 4 hours long
  • Outside this time, a PA is normally 3 hours long

This is so doctors who work more out-of-hours shifts are adequately compensated.

A doctor working overnight in ITU

This means a doctor who works in the Emergency Department, and so does more night shifts than say a dermatologist, may work fewer actual hours, despite being on the same full-time contract.

From the 10th biennial GP Worklife Survey, we can see GPs also work on average 40 hours per week.

This is actually down from an average of 41.8 hours per week in 2017.

GPs often have slightly more control over their working hours compared to their hospital-based counterparts.

That’s because it’s a lot easier to work part-time as a GP without lengthy contract negotiations, coupled with the fact that if you’re a partner in a GP practice you can decide your own working hours.

Do Doctors Work 7 Day Weeks?

You may have heard in the news about the government’s plan for a seven-day NHS.

It first appeared in the Conservative party’s manifesto for the 2015 general election. They committed to:

“… Increase spending on the NHS, provide seven-day a week access to your GP and deliver a truly seven-day NHSβ€”so you know you will always have access to a free and high quality health service when you need it most.”

But does that mean doctors just have to work 7 days a week?

Doctors aren’t expected to work 7 days a week without any rest in-between weeks. Many doctors are however expected to work a few weekends each month, but are given compensatory days off in return. Doctors can work seven days in a row, but this should again be followed by a rest period.

The good news is that even the government appreciates doctors aren’t super-humans that can just work for seven days a week non-stop.

But, even when you get your compensatory days off, I remember working seven days in a row was always pretty gruelling.

It just feels so wrong when it gets to Saturday morning and you still find yourself dragging yourself out of bed at 6:30am to get to work…

On the other hand, I know a few of my colleagues actually quite liked working weekends!

They said it’s because they enjoy the random mid-week days off you get in return, that you can then use to go do fun things that would otherwise be incredibly busy if everyone else wasn’t at work.

I get where they’re coming from, but still would rather not be in work when I should be horizontal in front of Netflix.

How Many Hours A Day Do Doctors Work?

One thing that often puts people off studying medicine is the notoriously bad work-life balance that doctors have.

I’m sure you can picture the scene from a medical TV drama- a doctor getting home late (yet again) to their cold dinner on the table with everyone else having already gone to bed.

Which is why I remember I was particularly keen to find out exactly how many hours a day doctors worked before I applied to medical school…

A typical day for a doctor will be approximately 10.5 hours long. This represents an 8am-5:30pm working day, including breaks. Approximately 50% of doctors will however work an average of an extra hour-a-day, as a result of the constraints of the job.

That doesn’t sound too bad right? It’s only slightly longer than the standard ‘9-5’ after all.

And to be fair, most of the time, it’s not.

Where it gets difficult is if you’re trying to leave on time and then something happens- a patient suddenly becomes unwell, a blood test comes back wildly deranged or a new patient arrives on the ward.

Due to the nature of the work, you can’t, for example, just stop doing chest compressions on the patient that’s arrested because the clock just struck five!

It’s these repeated occurrences that keep doctors late, leading them to miss dinner, date nights and more.

The emergency room at night

You’re very unlikely to ever leave early from work, so this overtime just stacks up, resulting in some doctors working far beyond their contracted hours.

From the 2020 NHS Staff Survey, we can see 55.2% of staff continue to work additional unpaid hours on a weekly basis- although this proportion has declined from 59.4% in 2016.

There’s undoubtedly still progress that needs to be made however, as evidenced by this 2021 paper, which surveyed 417 doctors to find:

  • Only 26% reported a satisfactory work–life balance
  • 70% of all respondents reported their work negatively affected their relationships
  • And 87% reported their work negatively affected their hobbies

If you’re interested in a typical day in the life of a doctor, I wrote an article detailing the duties of a junior doctor here.

What Is The Longest Shift A Doctor Can Work?

When a doctor gets tired, they’re more likely to make mistakes.

Which is not good news for the patients under their care.

Which is why the European Working Time Directive sets out legally what the longest shift a doctor can work.

The longest shift doctors work in the UK is 13 hours long. This commonly could be an 8am-9pm shift, or indeed a 9pm-10am shift. Legally, a doctor must have a period of 11 hours continuous rest a day, making 13 hour long shifts the longest doctors can do while still complying with the European Working Time Directive.

If you’ve ever done a 13 hour long shift, you’ll know they’re nothing to be sniffed at.

I’ve had a couple of busy shifts that left me so mentally drained by the end of them, I pretty much got home and just flopped into bed.

Thankfully, you shouldn’t find yourself working these ‘long days’ too often.

As part of a junior doctor’s rota, depending on the specialty, you might be expected to do one long day a week or a couple every other week.

Do Doctors Work 24 Hour Shifts?

If you’ve ever spoken to doctor who completed their training a few years ago, you might have heard them talk about working 24-hour shifts.

In the past, a weekend ‘on-call’ for a junior doctor could mean starting work at 9am on Saturday and not finishing till 5pm on Monday.

The junior doctor was allowed to sleep at any time they weren’t busy, but in reality with sick patients this could mean horrendous 24-hour stints of work with very little rest in-between.

I’m incredibly glad things have changed now that I’m a junior doctor!

But, surprisingly enough, the 24-hour shift does still exist, albeit in a different form.

In the modern NHS, a surgeon can be on-call for 24 hours. However, this does not equate to being in the hospital seeing patients for 24 hours.

What it can mean is the surgeon is in the hospital working for 12 hours, and then at home/in hospital accommodation for 12 hours.

In the 12 hours that they’re at home, the surgeon has to be prepared to come into the hospital at any time if they’re needed for an emergency operation.

So, although it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be, if the surgeon had to come in overnight they’re going to be pretty tired at work the next day!

How Many Hours Do Foundation Doctors Work In The UK?

Foundation year doctors (a.k.a. FY1s/FY2s) are doctors in their first two years of work following graduation from medical school.

You have to do the foundation program if you graduate in the UK. So if you have to do it, and you’re considering becoming a doctor, you might want to know how many hours foundation doctors have to work…

Foundation doctors in the UK are generally contracted to work just under 48 hours per week. The number of hours a foundation doctor works often varies slightly as they rotate through different specialties, but won’t exceed the European Working Time Directive’s legal limit of 48.

As part of the foundation program, doctors do six, four-month rotations over the two-year program.

For each of these six different jobs in six different departments, they’ll have a different work schedule.

So you don’t actually work a constant number of hours per week over your entire time as a foundation doctor. It slightly varies depending on where you’re working.

From my experience, junior doctors worked more hours in:

  • Surgical specialties
  • Accident & Emergency
  • The Medical Assessment Unit

And worked slightly fewer hours in:

  • General Practice
  • Ophthalmology
  • Community Psychiatry

But a lot of this is entirely location-specific. This is just the impression I got from speaking to my colleagues while working down in Plymouth.

While working fewer hours may sound great, the unfortunate downside of being contracted for fewer hours is you’re also paid less.

None of the work schedules will exceed the legal limit of 48 hours per week, but some will come pretty close.

It’s also important to note that foundation year doctors may be most susceptible to staying late and working unpaid overtime.

This can lead to them working far more hours per week than their job plan on paper would otherwise suggest.

How Many Hours Do Surgeons Work In The UK?

Surgeons are often in early to see their patients on the list for the day, operating all day, and then having to stay late to finish paperwork from the day’s surgery.

So, for such a hardworking specialty, how many hours do surgeons work?

The majority of full-time consultant surgeons in the UK are contracted to work for 40 hours per week. This can be lengthened to 48 hours per week if agreed by both the surgeon and local trust. Surgeons can find themselves working overtime if there are delays in the theatre list or cases take longer than expected.

One thing that sets surgeons apart from other doctors is that it can be a lot harder to hand over work at the end of a shift.

If you’ve started a surgery but it’s taken a lot longer than you thought it would, you can’t hand over to the next person coming on shift and then just leave!

You’ve got to stay and finish your operation!

Often surgeons may find things that are totally out of their control, such as operating room availability, cause them to run behind on their day’s work- meaning they have to stay late to finish it.

A surgeon preparing for an operation in the operating theatre

In general though, a consultant surgeon (someone who’s completed all their training) can work hours that suit them.

When on-call, consultant surgeons do occasionally have to come into the hospital overnight if there’s an emergency.

How often this happens depends a lot on the surgical specialty. There are relatively few surgical emergencies that need a maxillofacial surgeon overnight compared to say a trauma surgeon.

Many surgeons may also choose to reduce the number of hours they’re working for the NHS, due to the relatively lucrative private practice opportunities available to them.

Final Thoughts

In the UK, thanks to the European Working Time Directive, the outrageous working hours of doctors in times gone by has been brought somewhat under control.

For the majority of doctors, they can be incredibly busy at work but shouldn’t be regularly scheduled to work over 48 hour weeks.

Where this can fall down is when there’s a culture between doctors that juniors should be staying till the work is finished- which can lead to people working far more than their job plan lets on.

Thankfully, there’s a continual shift away from this perceived pressure some doctors experience… although it would be naive to say it’s entirely gone.

So far in my experience as a junior doctor, I luckily have never felt the need to consistently stay late- so I wouldn’t let it put you off if you’re thinking of applying to medical school!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.