As GP practices across the country continue to experience significant strain, and with many GPs concerned about the winter ahead, it’s easy for teams to either feel defeated or to go straight into crisis planning mode.
Having worked with hundreds of GPs at every age and stage of their careers over the years, from trainees through to national primary care leaders, I’d strongly encourage you to be proactive about your own and your team’s wellbeing.
Here are some ways to support yourself and your team, using the science of coaching psychology.
Take action to prevent or intervene early with occupational stress in yourself and your staff. Most doctors experience some degree of occupational stress during the course of their careers, and many need expert clinical help to recover.
A single clinical incident can cause lasting repercussions and loss of confidence. Other causes of occupational stress in primary care include challenging behaviours from colleagues or patients, the persistent low grade stress from ongoing system and service pressures, workload, delivering safe and effective clinical services with limited budgets, and staff shortages.
Look after yourself
Monitoring your own stress levels is essential – my recommendation would be at least on a weekly basis. Knowing when to access professional help is important, and there have never been so many evidence-based coaching psychology and clinical interventions to support your wellbeing. Here are three practical tools to support you:
- ‘RAG rate’ (red/amber/green) your stress level on a daily/weekly basis. Notice what green feels like, when you tip into amber and /or red. When you notice stress levels rising, what can you do now and also in the next few hours/ days/weeks which will help you to bring your stress level back down again?
- Create micro-opportunities for renewal and recharging. This activates our ‘rest and digest’ system and will enable you to get back in balance more quickly. Notice micro-moments of wellbeing - the warmth of a cup of tea in your hands, a moment of connection from a patient, the sound of the rain, a photo on your phone. Really feel the pleasure as you ‘savour’ all the positives for 15-30 seconds. Keep a log of these moments, revisit them on your way home, share them with a friend or family member in the evening to reactivate this emotional system.
- Practicing compassion for yourself. Compassion for others starts with filling up your own tank. This is a link to a brief self-compassion practice I have taught to hundreds of doctors over the years (this is an audio file). You can learn to do it in a few seconds between seeing patients or even during a consultation with time.
Manage your staff effectively
As leaders or managers, being skilled in the legal and practical requirements is also important. Make sure you are up to date with the latest legislation and best practice.1,2 I’m sure you’re already preparing as a team for the winter ahead – what can you do now to prevent or reduce the risk of staff absence or loss through prevention and early intervention?
Understanding the ‘stress is enhancing' mindset
I’m not pretending that stress is something we should seek out – nor that the structural causes of stress in primary care should be ignored. They absolutely should be urgently addressed at a national and local level.
However, there is growing psychological research showing that how we relate to the concept of stress can directly impact our wellbeing. Exposure to stressful situations will have a more negative impact on our attention, physiology and mood if we believe that stress is ‘debilitating’ (a threat) rather than ‘enhancing’ (a challenge). This could be related to the ‘exhaustion funnel’ that contributes to burnout in a vicious cycle.
There is also increasing evidence that people exposed to even significant levels of stress and trauma can eventually transcend and ‘grow bigger than’ their experiences, this is termed ‘post-traumatic growth’.
Whether someone develops a psychological injury or experiences psychological growth in the longer term is likely to be influenced by genetics, life experiences, their relation to the experience of stress – and also to the way that they are supported before, during, and after the stressful event(s).
Employers can be pro-active in this regard through risk assessment processes, prevention and early intervention. For those with non-clinical levels of occupational stress and trauma, expert coaching psychologists can support recovery, and enable transformation and longer-term wellbeing and satisfaction at work.
- Dr Fiona Day (MBChB, FFPH, CPsychol) is an executive, leadership, and career coach, and former board-level medical and public health leader, and worked in primary care as a younger doctor. She is the UK’s leading coach and chartered coaching Psychologist for senior doctors, medical and public health leaders. Fiona offers a 3 hours free CPD health career success programme - more information on this is here.