Wellbeing for GPs: How can you move towards wellbeing?

Dr Jennifer Napier explains how focusing on outcomes can help individuals and teams develop a plan for improving their wellbeing.

'By visualising our desired outcome, we begin to "see" the possibility of achieving it'

I invite you to spend a moment thinking about how you could improve your wellbeing. 

Obstacles or goals?

What sprang to mind? Did your thoughts go straight to the ‘problem’ you have with weight, stress or drinking too much? Were you reminded of previous struggles to address health issues?

Or did you feel frustrated about the obstacles between you and that ironman training, or the detox holiday on Koh Samui?

As human beings we are wired for survival. Our programming leads us to focus more on addressing threats and problems than on how to expand our wellbeing. 

This survival mechanism - called a ‘negativity bias’1 - means that we spend proportionately more time ruminating over the frustrations and difficulties rather than on the chances we have for pleasure, growth and satisfaction.

Our medical training is an excellent example of institutionalized ‘negativity bias’ – we are experts in diagnosing and managing problems. While Western medicine has brought huge benefits to humanity, it has significant limitations. 

The medical model helps us return patients from a negative, diseased state to a neutral, disease-free state, but it does not really address how to move above that neutral line towards a state of wellbeing and flourishing. Nor of how we might flourish in the context of living with chronic health conditions, or even in the face of death.

Linear problem-solving approaches are less helpful in addressing complex, multilayered, dynamic situations. And wellbeing is just that – multifaceted, contextual and evolving. Making a shift in one area of our lives will affect other aspects of our wellbeing. 

Focus on outcomes

I would like to share with key learning point from the coaching course I am currently attending. When we focus our attention on the outcomes we want, rather than the problems we are facing, we enter into a more creative space

By imagining how we want our future to unfold, and how this preferred future will feel, we start connecting with our resources, motivation and energy. By visualising our desired outcome, we begin to ‘see’ the possibility of achieving it.

According to research using brain imagery, visualisation works because neurons in our brains interpret imagery as equivalent to real-life action, creating new neural pathways, memories and behaviours.2

If we can also add words to the images we are creating, and name specifically what it is we want to move towards, we add yet greater oomph to the likelihood we will get there.

This process of clearly articulating our vision, starts moving us towards setting specific goals. It can foster a greater sense of resourcefulness in us, unlocking an engage-approach mentality instead of avoidance.

These steps of visualising and describing what we want also lead to a stronger recognition that we are responsible for our own choices, even if that seems to be within a limited range of options, given the demands we are juggling.

Developing a plan for your wellbeing

Take the opportunity to stop and imagine the healthier you, filled with a greater sense of wellbeing. My hope is that you will take the time to formulate a plan for enhancing your wellbeing. The following questions can help you do that.

Perhaps write down, or – better still – discuss your answers with someone who can listen and reflect back, and who will avoid imposing their own views and answers.

  1. How important is your wellbeing to you on a scale of 1 to 10? What would happen if you made no changes in the current situation?
  2. What exactly is going on for you with regards to wellbeing? What else is this impacting on? What is stopping you from moving towards greater wellbeing? What success have you had already, however small?
  3. Fast forward six months, and imagine you are in a better state of wellbeing.  How did you do it, and how are you feeling? What untapped resources can you bring to bear on this? 
  4. What options are there? How will you decide on which option(s) to use? 
  5. What are you going to do? What’s the first step? When will you take it?  How will you review your progress?3

These questions could also be used by a team that wants to improve the wellbeing of its members.  In fact, working on these questions together would be creative, synergistic, and likely to generate mutual support and stronger team connections. 

There may never have been a greater ironic gap between the values that inspire our work and the state we are in ourselves, and as a profession.  These are indeed tough times, calling for every bit of creativity and initiative we can summon.

So, it is with great respect and compassion, but also encouragement and ambition that I write: ‘Physician, how will you move towards your own wellbeing?’

  • Dr Jennifer Napier is a GP with special interest in occupational medicine. She has researched wellbeing and workforce issues, and works through Contextualyse to train and consult on how to create healthy, productive workplaces.

Read the other articles in this series


  1. Baumeister, R. et al Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology 2001; 5(4): 323-370.?
  2. Begley, S. The Brain: How The Brain Rewires Itself, Time, 19 January 2007
  3. Management Futures, Coaching Development for GPs (2016)

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