Wellbeing for GPs: How can you find the 'wiggle-room' to tackle stress?

In a new series of articles for GPonline Dr Jennifer Napier will explore ways GPs can look after their health and wellbeing - and that of their teams. Below she explains what wellbeing means and how GPs can find the space to make positive changes.

There is a very strong chance that you are feeling stressed or burnt-out, and wondering what’s so bad about stacking shelves at Tesco’s after all.  You may be fantasising about emigrating to a better-resourced health service where you would find a better work-life balance, or analyzing your finances to work out how soon you can retire.

How do I know this? Well, if you’re reading this you are probably a GP, and there is heaps of evidence that we GPs are having a tough time of it right now, in the midst of a workforce crisis with soaring levels of burnout.

It is challenging for anyone working in the health service, and perhaps particularly so in primary care. When we go into survival mode, we often do not have the chance to find the ways we can lighten our load, or to stay connected with a sense of meaning that animates our work. Even seeing our patients can become a treadmill exercise with time pressure leading to an acute awareness of every passing minute.

It’s time to find solutions

The silver lining in reaching this crunch point is that it is clear we are not the only ones who are struggling. No, being a GP these days is immensely challenging, and in future articles I will explain more about how work stress models help us understand this vividly.

It really is time to find solutions. 

In this series of articles I hope to encourage and inspire you to consider ways of looking after your health and wellbeing, and that of your team. By being proactive, we seize the opportunity to prevent burnout, illness, and fallout in our practices and families. 

Whilst at times I will explore the very real challenges to our wellbeing, my main emphasis will be on discovering the potential for improving how we are. Drawing on my experience as a GP, and my understanding of organisations, I want to help you find the wiggle-room that will enable you to move from surviving towards thriving.

By wiggle-room, I mean that space in which we have choice, where we can try things that may serve us a little better than our current status quo.

What is wellbeing?

Wellbeing can be thought of in two main ways – the hedonic and eudaimonic approaches.  Hedonic approaches focus on positive affect such as happiness, pleasure or satisfaction, and the eudaimonic approaches broaden the idea of wellbeing to encompass a sense of purpose, vitality, and growth.1  

I will explore how we might enhance our wellbeing at both these levels, in terms of physical, psychological, social, and intellectual health.

Wellbeing at work

Wellbeing in the workplace has frequently been couched in terms of the individual’s ability to cope or not. We doctors may be especially prone to looking for autobiographical solutions to systemic issues, accustomed as we are to meeting most challenges with panache, gumption and hard work. 

But on the issue of our own wellbeing, whilst some of the wiggle-room may be at individual level, a lot is dependent on our workplace context and the cultures we co-create.

We have most direct choice about personal initiatives to look after our own health, but as leaders of small organisations, we also have a fair amount of choice about the culture we want to build in our practices. When we engage staff and teams to work together in addressing challenges, small changes create real impact.

The issues we face nowadays – of working within the institutional setting of the NHS - are bigger than any one of us, and may challenge us to find different ways of understanding our agency, as well as our vulnerability.

So how can we tackle our wellbeing when we are housed within an institution that can often seem punitive and under-supportive, with its targets, regulation, and austerity drives? 

Well, perhaps if we have a chance to understand and articulate the impact of the context, we are better placed to advocate for positive change. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the NHS – the fifth largest employer in the world had happy, healthy staff? Perhaps we can be part of that change.

  • Dr Jennifer Napier is a GP in London an honorary research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London where she has researched wellbeing and workforce issues. She is also the founder of Contextualyse, a consulting company focused on supporting organisations to create healthy workplaces

1. Bryson, A., Forth, J. & Stokes, L. Does Worker Wellbeing Affect Workplace Performance? London, Department for Business Innovation & Skills, October 2014

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