Almost two out of three young hospital doctors say their physical or mental health is being damaged because pressures on the NHS are putting them under intolerable strain. Many are so relentlessly busy that they go through entire shifts without eating or drinking, while others suffer stress, burnout, exhaustion and sleeping problems. Relationships with family and friends are also deteriorating as a result of the struggle to cope with the fast-rising demand for care.

A survey of the working lives of 2,300 trainee anaesthetists has found that six out of seven – 85% – are at risk of becoming burned out, despite only being in their 20s and 30s. Respondents identified long hours, fears about patient safety, the disruption of working night shifts and long commutes to their hospital as key reasons for their growing fatigue and disillusionment. The survey, by the Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCoA), found that 64% of trainees in that speciality below the level of consultant felt their job had affected their physical health and 61% their mental health. Anaesthetists play a key role in both adult and children’s intensive care units and pain management, as well as in all surgery.

Among respondents, 62% had gone through a shift in the last month without a meal and 75% had not had adequate hydration while at work. Almost all (95%) stay on after their shift, 68% had stayed up to two hours longer in the last month, and 28% had done more than two hours unpaid overtime at least once. Chronic understaffing in hospitals means that trainees are typically being asked to work six extra shifts a month to cover for gaps in rotas, the survey found.

Some said widespread low morale and poor work-life balance meant they were considering quitting, with some looking at careers outside medicine and others looking at going abroad to practise in countries such as Australia. “The long hours of the job itself and exams means there is very little time for family and friends. This puts a huge strain on developing a reasonable work-life balance and on maintaining meaningful relationships with family and friends,” said one anaesthetist.

Dr Liam Brennan, the RCoA’s president, said: “I am shocked by some of the results of this survey. The reports of deteriorating physical and mental health and burnout in doctors at the beginning of their career is a major concern. It is clear that it is the beleaguered system which is under intense pressure that is the cause of these worrying findings.”

The General Medical Council, which regulates the medical profession, warned that the strain on anaesthetists could endanger patient safety. “These findings echo many of our own recent National Training Survey results, and raise concerns not just for trainees but also for patients and employers. The pressure the NHS is under is placing doctors under greater stress, as well as eroding time for training, development and the recuperation necessary to remain resilient,” said Charlie Massey, its chief executive.

“Unless trainees are given the time needed to develop their knowledge and skills then we risk harm to all doctors, especially those training to be the senior doctors of the future, as well as the patients they care for,” he added.

The Department of Health declined to respond directly to the findings. A spokesman said: “Staff are working hard on the frontline, and we’re supporting them with 1,500 more anaesthetists compared to 2010 and over 3,500 in training each year. We are also investing £10bn in the NHS to transform services and improve patient care, including almost £4bn this year.”