It was the whispered conversations in the waiting room that finally woke me up to the reality that I was dealing with something beyond my immediate control.
“Is Dr Jenny all right?” “Does she have cancer?”
My gaunt appearance, an 8kg drop on a 55kg frame, was hard to hide. I didn’t have cancer, but I did have something else.
I had been struggling with stress for months and was physically and mentally exhausted. As the principal of a group medical practice with two small children and a husband away a lot on business, I didn’t know who to talk to or what to do about it. I couldn’t bear the thought of being judged a lesser person, or worse still deemed incompetent as a doctor.
It’s a ridiculous state of affairs that so many of us as health professionals, who love what we do, who care so deeply for others, and want to always be of service, fail so miserably in the self-care department.
Perhaps, to overcome our delusional state, we need to tattoo across our foreheads #Humantoo, because none of us are immune to the impact of severe, chronic stress.
The state of mental wellbeing in the health profession is looking decidedly peaky and it starts well before graduation. More worryingly still, the prevalence and severity of anxiety and depression in health care students is increasing.
The well-known risk factors contributing to our mental distress include working long hours, working shifts, feeling isolated or unsupported, experiencing bullying, dealing with patients who are distressed, angry or aggressive, and the sense of being overwhelmed by the rapidly growing workload of those needing long-term health care to manage their multiple, chronic medical problems.
The cost of presenteeism (turning up sick to work) costs the Australian economy around $34 billion a year. The human costs are far greater.
Continuing to ignore the ‘bleeding obvious’ where the headlines report on the tragic death of a colleague or medical student due to suicide is simply unacceptable.
Do we not care about the mental wellbeing of our own tribe? Are we in denial that it’s a major problem requiring urgent attention? Or is it that we’re just too caught up in our own bubble of busyness and stress?
We can all take individual and collective responsibility to ensure our workplace environment supports and nurtures everyone at work.
Why You Need Self-Care
Dr Jenny Brockis offers some reasons why caring for yourself is good for you and some practical tips to help achieve it.
Looking after yourself has some very real benefits. For starters, it helps you to:
- Enjoy being on the job – feeling more energised, confident and resilient to those curveballs we deal with on a daily basis.
- Gives you better cognition and memory, more empathy, being easier to work with and making fewer mistakes.
Renewable energy resources
Planning your work day includes scheduling time for fulfilling those basic physiological and psychological needs without the guilt. Starting with taking a proper lunch break, which includes eating real food and not eating ‘al desko’. Scheduling time for regular exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block, to decrease stress, clear the mind and boost your mood enhancing hormones. Placing a high value on enough sleep. Our propensity for voluntary sleep restriction – justified as work or study doesn’t hold water when it comes to maintaining mental flexibility, emotional regulation and a positive outlook.
Step away from the desk!
We’re not designed for long-term focus, so take 5-10-minute breaks several times a day. They restore energy and provide time for the subconscious to start to work through the day’s events. This helps keep things in perspective and facilitates problem-solving and decision-making so you’re not kept up at night worrying about them.
Working beyond 40 hours a week has been shown to not only diminish productivity and performance, it takes us away from our families and friends. Doing something other than work stimulates creativity, happiness, makes us more interesting and more appealing as people.
If this seems an impossible goal, start to work fewer hours each week?
Taking time out on a regular basis to simply be and think, serves as a checking-in process to ask the questions ‘Am I OK and on track?’, ‘What’s going well, or what isn’t?’ ‘What needs to stop or change?’
Identify who is in your support team. Whether this is your partner, a trusted colleague or your GP, know who these people are and ask them to speak up if they notice things are not going so well for you.
Schedule your own wellness program with your doctor that includes a physical, mental and cognitive check-up. This helps to normalise the event and reduce any associated stigma and practice relaxation techniques regularly.
Build social cohesion
Happiness at work doesn’t occur in isolation. This is a team effort where everyone looks out for each other, where to boost positivity. Employ random acts of kindness, be generous with your attention, be an active listener and always start with a smile.
If despite your best efforts, things are getting on top of you it’s time to acknowledge what’s happening and give yourself permission to speak up. It might feel uncomfortable, scary even, but we are human and as such we are all fallible, vulnerable and imperfect. It’s always OK to ask for help.