Union leaders told politicians it "takes some kind of saint" to work on the frontline of Scottish hospitals, as members of the Holyrood Health and Sport Committee scrutinised the health budget.
Information that the Scottish Government provides to Parliament on pay and staffing is "out of kilter", with conditions reported to unions with a 10% cut in real-terms earnings and record nursing vacancies at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, according to the witnesses.
The NHS has "a culture of playing with numbers" to "massage over the gaps created by efficiency savings", with staff working 90 hours a week in breach of the European working time directive, it was claimed.
The bleak picture follows a series of articles in The Herald highlighting the growing pressure on NHS services, including the struggle health boards faced this year to find enough trainee emergency and acute medicine doctors.
The newspaper is calling for a review to ensure hospitals and care services have the right staff in the right place at the right time to cope with the growing elderly population.
Donald Harley, deputy secretary of the British Medical Association in Scotland, told the health committee many GPs are over the age of 55 and looking for an exit door as they are asked to do more without extra cash. He said. "We are looking at a crisis in manning in general practice."
Mr Harley also warned hospitals faced similar issues: "From the people we speak to in A&E and also in acute, which is getting towards breaking point, we already see the fact that it's very hard to recruit people to work in A&E."
Rachel Cackett, policy adviser at the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said boards have been making short-term savings by holding nursing vacancies open for months to save on salary costs.
"The low hanging fruit is gone and boards are having to be ever more creative to come up with the savings that they have agreed with government," she said.
The unions welcomed Health Secretary Alex Neil's commitment to honour a 1% pay rise, which his counterpart in England is seeking to withdraw, but warned against presenting it as a real-terms rise.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "NHS staffing is up 5% since this Government came to power, and up 1.5% in the last year alone. There are over 1000 extra qualified nurses and 1600 more doctors in our health service.
"This is all backed up by the now mandatory workforce planning tool, which boards are using to ensure there are the right number of staff, in the right place at the right time."