GPs tell how coaching helped them manage practices during COVID-19

GPs have outlined how coaching designed to improve mental wellbeing and resilience in primary care staff has helped them manage exhaustion and pressure.

GP meeting
(Photo: Edwin Tan/Getty Images)

The ‘Looking After You Too’ scheme is a free virtual coaching scheme introduced by NHS England at the height of the pandemic in 2020 aimed at those working in primary care. 

The coaching is delivered through the NHS and consists of specialised sessions designed to better equip staff in dealing with the pressures and challenges they are facing, with the aim of ultimately improving their levels of mental/emotional wellbeing and building resilience.

Common topics covered within the coaching included:

  • Pressures and challenges you may be facing.
  • How you are thinking/feeling.
  • How you are coping with the impact of demands in the system.
  • Specific problems affecting your sense of wellbeing.
  • How you are balancing the demands of working life and demands at home.
  • Managing stress and developing positive coping strategies.
  • Concerns about relationships.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has recently published a study looking at the impact of the scheme which shows a significant positive impact on those in receipt of the coaching. Their study also involved the personal accounts of two GPs who undertook the coaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research into the impact of the scheme found that the scheme has been ‘effective in improving short-term perceived wellbeing and resilience’ in GPs and other primary care staff, with the overall long-term impact of the coaching being maximised when attending multiple sessions.

The challenge of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted severe strain on the mental and physical well-being of GPs across the country during recent years. 

Pressure emanating from severe staff shortages, public criticism and a strained workload has led to increasingly frequent cases of burnout and higher numbers of GPs choosing to resign, retire early or opt for a career change.

Dr Amit Bharkhada, a GP partner working in a practice in north-east Leicestershire covering 12-12,500 patients, and an unnamed salaried GP working in a north London practice covering 10,500 people, provided insight into their experience with the ‘Looking After You Too’ coaching.

Dr Bharkhada described the transition from the traditional approach of GP-patient consultations to remote consultations as ‘challenging’, citing the need to maintain patient expectations during the unsettling period of the first lockdown.

Initially feeling as if he was coping well with the new situation, Dr Bharkhada explained that ‘sometimes we all have challenges’ in our professional lives, but that ‘stressors do occur, and these have to be handled in a caring and human approach.’

The north London salaried GP had been working in the area for only a few months when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. Their practice had seen the highest patient contact and e-consultations in their area and the GP was asked to lead the practice’s  response which ‘involved putting a lot of systems in place’.

Working to ‘ensure that there was visible leadership throughout this unsettling time,’ the GP said they were ‘overwhelmed’.

How the coaching helped

The coaching provided staff with the opportunity to develop effective ways of dealing with the amplified stress of working in general practice during a pandemic.

After using the coaching service once Dr Bharkhada reported feeling listened to and understood, describing the coach as ‘professional in their role’ and hailing their ability to provide ‘valuable coaching techniques’.

As a result, he gained a higher understanding of how people perceive communication as ‘threats, safety or drive zones’, saying the element of ‘most value’ was his heightened awareness of how he delivers his words to patients. 

The north London salaried GP also reported improvements in their conversational ability, having developed techniques suitable for a ‘range of difficult situations’. The GP also found the flexible timing and topic coverage particularly helpful.

A lasting impact?

The IES study assessing the effectiveness of the ‘Looking After You Too’ offer has reported short-term improvements to perceived wellbeing and resilience. The study adds that in order to achieve a longer-term impact, further registration to more than one coaching session should be encouraged.

While Dr Bharkhada only attended one coaching session, the coach directed him to reading and resources to aid his long-term understanding of different communication styles. However he says if he needed more support or was having any issues in the future, he would have ‘no hesitation to using the service again’.

Reflecting on the impact of the session, Dr Bharkhada strongly recommended it to colleagues, saying ‘it is these types of conversations that make me a better clinician’, adding that ‘you are not taught these types of things in medical school’.

Having taken two sessions and having booked a third, the salaried GP from north London also reported some long-term post-coaching benefits of their own. Commenting on the impact of the communication techniques taught during the coaching, they said ‘the more you use them, the easier it becomes to implement’.

They concluded that the virtual coaching ‘provided the opportunity to take time for myself in what was a very stressful situation,’ adding that ‘I understand the importance of wellbeing at work, and if it has helped me then it can only be a good thing.’

Find out more about the 'Looking After You Too' coaching.

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