GP stress: New study aims to help improve access to support

Bristol University is conducting research with GPs about mental health and where they seek support, with the aim of enabling more doctors to access help. Johanna Spiers explains why the study is needed and how GPs can become involved.

GPs have been the target of critical comment from the mainstream press for some time now. Short appointment times, closing practices and long waiting lists are just a few of stories that have been hitting the headlines.

GPs themselves, of course, know the other side of the story. GP job dissatisfaction and stress are at their highest level for over a decade. Stress is frequently given as the reason for leaving the job.

However, the heavy workload of the GP can lead to more than just stress. Both quantitative and qualitative research suggests the group are vulnerable to anxiety, depression, burnout, addiction and suicide. 

Obstacles to seeking help

Despite the high prevalence of mental health issues, there exists a strong culture of invulnerability across all healthcare providers, and GPs are no exception. One study reported that UK GPs would continue to work when sick and expect their colleagues to do the same, resulting in an unhealthy attitude of stoicism.

Even if a GP planned to ask for help, she or he then faces a number of obstacles that make actually getting that help challenging. Barriers include stigma around mental illness, a sense that ‘illness belongs to patients’ and concerns around confidentiality.

To compound the problem, GPs report that sessions with other GPs can be awkward, meaning these doctors possibly don’t get the best treatment.

Little research into GP stress

Despite the many well-publicised pressures that are heaped on the heads of GPs nationwide, there is little research into mental illness for this group.

A plethora of qualitative work has explored the experiences of nurses with stress and burnout, and there is some work with junior doctors, but GPs are largely silent on the subject of distress within academic research. Tellingly, the little research that does exist here often features GPs talking about the illness of the profession, rather than of themselves, or sees participants labelling patients as depressed, but themselves as merely tired.

Why might this be? One explanation is the aforementioned idea that illness belongs to patients. If this is the prevailing motto of the workplace, who would want to accept an invitation to be interviewed about illness?

In addition, doctors are often trained with the suggestion that difficult emotions are a weakness, and with few safe places to share any such feelings with others. Finally, there is a lack of funding available for research into the health of healthcare professionals.

New research project

This is where our study, Exploring the barriers and facilitators to help-seeking by GPs: Improving access to support steps in.

We are in the process of interviewing GPs about mental health as well as how and where they seek support, with the aim of enabling more GPs who are nearing the end of a fraying tether to reach out and be able to receive help. We are looking for GPs who are currently:

  • Working despite having mental health issues and/or chronic stress and/or burnout (and who may or may not have sought help)
  • Returned to work following time off related to mental health issues
  • On sick leave or retired early due to mental health issues
  • Living with no mental health issues, but have opinions about how GPs might seek help if they do.

Interviews will take around an hour and will be confidential. They can take place over the phone or in person, and participants will be paid £80 for their time.

If you are interested in taking part in our study, please visit our website or email for more information.

  • Johanna Spiers is research associate at the University of Bristol

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