The constant pressure of a demanding patient population combined with office politics and problems with staff tipped me into the stress stratosphere early on in my career.
Added to this, I had a desire for more variety in my career. I wanted to teach and train, and also have time for a life outside medicine. The rigidity of the system I worked in made it difficult to pursue these interests.
I had already witnessed other colleagues having to stop work due to mental and physical health problems. For me, the clues to burnout showed up as a string of minor illnesses, constant physical exhaustion, and a loss of enjoyment in my work.
At a particularly low point, I decided to work with a life coach. This helped me to clarify what really mattered to me. As a trainee I had aspired to develop a portfolio career. When a full time partnership was offered shortly after qualification, I soon lost sight of these dreams and aspirations.
I reduced my workload and, with the time this created, was able to develop my work as a teacher and appraiser, and also train as a transformative coach. Eventually I was inspired to take the leap and resign from partnership.
Since becoming a locum, I’ve never wanted for work. The increased flexibility has enabled me to develop my role as an appraiser, as well as becoming a training programme director for the local GPVTS. Having ‘seen the light’ I’m now passionate about working with other doctors to help them create the work/life balance that will allow them to enjoy themselves both inside and outside work.
I’ve also rediscovered the pleasure of seeing patients. I may not get the benefits of a continuous relationship, but having only one opportunity to serve makes my interactions with patients all the more special – and they seem to find me a breath of fresh air. Colleagues and staff are always pleased to see me, and when I’ve finished my surgery there is little, if any, paperwork – and no office politics.
There are some potential pitfalls. I had to learn to make time for admin and invoicing – essential if you want to get paid and stay organised. If security is important for you, being a locum may not be suitable. It can also be a lonely existence – though the interactions I have with my teaching team have inoculated me from this. There are still question marks over making revalidation work for locums, and it’s worth joining a local sessional GPs group or joining the NASGP.
Being a GP locum is now a viable long-term career choice. But it’s also a great intermediary state while you decide on your next step, allowing you and practices to get to know one another. The job market is much more fluid than it used to be, and it’s commonplace to move between roles, rather than staying in one role for the whole of your working life.
As doctors we’re masterful at getting our heads down and just ‘getting on with it’. We know what we don’t want, but are so busy just getting through the day that we rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to explore how we’d really love life to be.
In my work coaching other doctors, it’s become clear to me that there are many ways to avoid burnout. Not all involve leaving your current role – sometimes a few small changes can make all the difference. Either way, medical school chooses ‘well-rounded’ individuals, and I think it’s about time we all recognised that allowing ourselves the time and space to rediscover our ‘well-rounded’ selves is good, not only for us, but also for everyone we interact with.
Dr Libby Hodges is a coach and GP in Southam, Warwickshire.