THERE'S an ongoing debate about work-life balance. It seems that the more work demands of us, the more we nip and tuck our lives to accommodate it. The problem is, like an over-filled balloon, eventually, too much work makes you pop. It's a matter of when, not if.

According to the General Medical Council’s Annual Report, there is such “a state of unease within the medical profession across the UK that it risks affecting patients as well as doctors”.

The report highlights that 86 per cent of doctors who take a break from practice cite work-life balance issues as the primary reason. Even more alarming, 47 per cent of this group say burnout forced them to take time away from practising medicine.

Like most folk who visit their GP or go to see a hospital specialist, I want a doctor who is fairly happy with their lot, a competent practitioner who is reasonably well-balanced in body and soul. I’m not looking for a standardised robot-doc, devoid of personality or the odd idiosyncrasy, but I do expect to see a doctor who is able to listen, focus on my concerns and then think clearly about how to help me.

This may sound simple, but it takes an awful lot of training, knowledge, experience and commitment to respond effectively and empathically to patients in need. And, let’s face it, when we as patients sit down in our GP’s consulting room, knotted up in pain, worry or grief, we are not always at our best. Understandably, we can be a tad self-absorbed. Consequently, we tend to forget that doctors are human, too. Just like the rest of us, they are vulnerable to life's slings and arrows: problems with relationships, money, addiction, bereavement, childcare, divorce, loneliness. Their extensive training doesn't provide inoculation against the predicament of being human. Doctors feel and think just like the rest of the population. But there is one significant difference: when they feel helpless or stressed, they are still expected to heal. The sheer weight of this expectation – especially in a climate of plummeting morale, soaring demand and increasing litigation – is crushing for many doctors and increasing numbers among them are breaking down under the sustained pressure of relentlessly heavy workloads and administration.

This pressure is compounded by the fact that, despite more efforts by the General Medical Council (GMC) to encourage doctors to care for their mental health (by providing increased access to confidential counselling services), many practitioners still fear stigmatisation if diagnosed with depression or other mental health conditions caused by overwork. This makes them reluctant to seek help, leading some to try and "heal themselves" by self-medicating with prescription drugs such as Valium or alcohol. There is more than a little ambivalence about approaching the GMC for help because this is the same organisation that investigates complaints by patients and monitors doctors’ fitness to practise.

And if a doctor has to take time off sick, they often feel guilty because it's their practice colleagues who have to take up the slack in their absence, thus adding to their chronically heavy workload. No wonder so many doctors feel trapped or that suicide rates rates in the medical profession are significantly higher (somewhere between 28-40 per 100,000), compared to the general population (12.3 per 100,000).

If we want to keep our doctors well, able to treat the population, we need to address the underlying issues that are impacting on their working lives. Impossible workloads, lack of social care, year-on-year cuts in funding and staffing, an ageing population and a hostile industrial relations process between the government and junior doctors are all making our healers too sick to heal.

It's all very well to provide first-aid in the form of confidential counselling services when individual doctors buckle under and fragment under the strain, but rather than treat the symptoms, it's imperative we treat the root causes. There is something essentially perverse about Government policies that make our healers sick.

It reminds me of the Greek myth of Chiron. Chiron was a demi-god who was accidentally shot by Hercules with a poisoned arrow. The wound never healed and caused Chiron unbearable suffering. As a demi-god, Chiron was immortal and couldn't die. The only way he could bear his pain was to heal the suffering of others and so he became known as the "wounded healer". Eventually, by offering up his own life to save the life of Prometheus, Chiron managed to escape his pain by dying.

Most doctors don't want to be super-heroes and they don't want to sacrifice their lives to their jobs. They just want to help people who are suffering. It's time we understood that doctors who are fatally wounded – by overwork – can't even heal themselves, never mind anyone else.