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Independents' Day

Seven steps to returning to work after burnout

Psychotherapist Janet Weisz advises on how to ease back into work after a significant period of leave

As stress levels continue to rise, the number of GPs taking extended periods of leave is increasing.

Returning to work after a period of burnout can be a very daunting thought: your confidence may have been affected; you may have concerns about a lack of understanding from colleagues or you may be concerned about this happening again. You could be feeling a number of things, all of which could create a snowball effect of mounting anxieties.

In light of this, I’ve compiled seven steps that may help with the difficult transition of returning to work.

1 Agree a structured return to work with your employer

Doing too much too soon could further jeopardise your health. Easing yourself back in to your routine slowly is the safest way to return to work, particularly if you have been off for a long period of time. For example, this could mean working one day or two half days a week to start with, and gradually increasing this until both you are your employer agree that you are ready to take on your regular workload and resume working full-time.

2 Remind yourself that you have done nothing wrong by being off sick

Burnout is not a sign of weakness or inferiority; it’s your mind and body telling you that you are doing too much. You have as much right to time off as someone with a physical injury; a person with broken bones wouldn’t be expected to carry out arduous physical duties. Equally, you shouldn’t be expected to risk your mental wellbeing.

3 Choose how you’ll respond to colleagues about your time off

One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of returning to work is having to face colleagues. Their reactions could vary from asking too many questions, to saying nothing at all. If you are being treated unfairly, tell someone. It is up to your employer to eliminate any employment practices that discriminate against you.

If you are worried about what to say to colleagues in response to their questions, remember that it is a private matter, and opening up to them about your burnout is entirely optional. Depending on your relationship with them, you may find that opening up can help them to understand.

4 Keep looking after yourself

Think about what works for you: for some people it is regular exercise, for others it is engaging in hobbies. Monitor your sleeping and eating patterns and identify any irregularities that could be a warning sign.

5 Watch for signs of excessive self-medication

For example, sugary foods, energy boosters or alcohol. It is best to avoid anything that can modify your mood while you’re still in the process of adjusting. If you have any concerns about self-medication, seek support or advice as soon as possible.

6 Consider talking to your employer about other ways to accommodate your return to work.

Unless someone has experienced burnout themselves, it may be hard for them to understand the details of what you are going through. Although your employer will already know the reason for your absence, it is important to continue to let them know how you feel. They can then better empathise and make reasonable arrangements that are beneficial to both them and you.

7 Use your circle of support.

This could include close friends or family members. Having people around you who you can talk to and confide in will help to voice the feelings of anxiety you may be experiencing, while holding your feelings in could cause you to suffer even more. The people who know you best will be able to offer advice and help you with your concerns.

If you are struggling to talk to people at home, or your negative feelings appear frequently and are destructive to everyday life, you may want to consider seeking professional help. You may have access to therapy through your employer and should discuss your options with them.

Janet Weisz is a psychotherapist and psychodynamic counsellor, and chair of UKCP.


Readers' comments (11)

  • Any advice for those of us who do not have an employer?

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  • Tom Caldwell

    Dear Pulse does this story warrant you publisising ?

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  • Fine for salaried doctors but not so useful to partners who 'burn out'. There is no 'employer' to turn to and no employment rights to fall back on.

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  • I burnt out nine years ago as a full time single handed GP. This is no help whatsoever I'm afraid. Nobody seems remotely interested in helping me back to work. I have been told that I don't even have a responsible officer as I have to have a job first. So how do I revalidate? I've given up and suspect I'll never go back. Anyway from what I can see the job looks like a nightmare now. I was at my own GP today trying to sign up for a repeat Px online ordering scheme. What a beaurocratic nonsensical nightmare! The receptionist insisted on photo ID even though she knows me. I had to drive six miles home to get it. Whilst waiting to fill in the second form, I amused myself by reading the three hundred authoritarian notices that they had stuck to the walls and every other available surface, one of which said that you couldn't expect the doctor to discuss two problems in one consultation . Another said you couldn't book a double appointment.
    Outside were fifteen waiting room chairs sitting in the rain after being deemed unfit for CQC. The whole world of general practice seems to have gone insane and GPs seem to have no respect or authority anymore.

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  • Una Coales

    @9:18 the word Kafkaesque comes to mind.

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  • The reason for burnout is ICS as opposed to salaried. Np protection whatsoever from DOH diktats, imposed contracts and impossible workloads. The members of the BMA are suffering so much with depression and burnout. Yet the BMA keeps on doing nothing. When is enough ?

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  • Move to Canada where you can actually be a doctor who doctors people not a computer.

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  • Anonymous 9:18 pm.
    You are so right. I am posting anonymously, which is unusual for me, in order not to offend my old partners who were a dream in getting me back into my practice after a year off with burnout depression.
    The situation now, though, would make that impossible and in fact the idea that you should manage burnout by yourself after it has been induced by the government and its lackeys is risible.
    Our local faculty of the RCGP has a website page on the subject of burnout and it most definitely implies that the problem is YOU.
    Not at all helpful.

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  • What are the reasons for so much burn out and depression. Could it have anything with 40+ consultations, 100s of blood tests,phone calls,prescriptions,letters,referrals each day of 11-12 hours ? Are we different from the human race that have rights to rest and recreation ? This is still not enough. They want 7 day opening and 24 hour cover.
    The question is more like this Why is everybody not burnt out, because no one can run at 100 MPH everyday.

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  • A bitt of a non story as every case is different and do we really want to know what non copers are doing?

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