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Patients, paperwork and the unspoken expectation that you’ll give whatever it takes and then some … that’s business as usual for Australia’s army of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals whose working lives are dedicated to the health and wellbeing of others. Right?

Dr Jenny Brokis

No, says Perth GP Dr Jenny Brockis, author of a series of books on brain performance. Putting others first shouldn’t mean putting yourself last and taking time to focus on your own physical and mental health can ensure you remain at the top of your game.

“Too often you hear of very hard working, dedicated health professionals who go the extra mile and do everything they can to look after everyone else but never do anything to make sure they’re okay themselves,” Dr Brockis says.

“Ironically, that means they’re actually reducing the opportunity to make sure that they are in the best possible state to always offer their best to the people in their care.”

Sobering statistics

Resilience is a hallmark of healthcare sector workers but research into their mental health and wellbeing makes for a sobering read.

Beyond Blue’s 2013 National Mental Health Survey found that, for doctors and medical students, their general workplace experience was ‘stressful and demanding’.

In the survey, doctors reported substantially higher rates of psychological distress and attempted suicide compared with the Australian population and other Australian professionals. In particular, young doctors and female doctors appeared to have higher levels of general and specific mental health problems and reported greater work stress.

While trained to encourage others to seek help, stiff upper lip syndrome can remain prevalent among the prescriber class, as a result of stigmatising attitudes regarding the performance of doctors with mental health conditions. Concerns about confidentiality, embarrassment and worries about future employability may also prevent many from seeking appropriate help.

The benefits of finding time

Research shows mindfulness training can be an effective means of reducing workplace stress for medical folk. A US study last year by Pflugeisen, Drummond et al showed a significant decrease in stress and emotional exhaustion among participants who completed an eight-week program.

For those already wishing their day had a few extra hours, the notion of scheduling more breaks or cordoning off some ‘me time’ can seem like a plan that’s doomed to fail.

It begins with self-awareness, Dr Brockis says – taking time out to check on where you’re at.

“Because we get caught in the cycle of perpetual busyness, we don’t take that time out to be quiet and reflective, so it’s about giving ourselves time to do that,” she says. “From there, we can start to think about some of the things we’d like to be different and develop a framework to make them happen.”

Achievable workday changes might include noting opportunities for exercise sessions, resolving to chew the fat with colleagues in the tea room rather than snatching a sandwich at the desk and identifying ideal start and finish times, instead of allowing work to encroach unimpeded on family and leisure time.

Making yourself a priority

“It can feel daunting, thinking, ‘Where is the time to do a meditation practice or get to the gym three times a week?’” Dr Brockis says.

“Intellectually, you know what’s important but it’s challenging to then build that new behavioural change. We know from experience how difficult that is; it’s the most difficult thing we ask other people to do.”

For some health practitioners, making change not just about themselves but about their practice at large can up the odds of sticking to new habits.

“If you’re coming from a place where everyone thinks brain health is important and talks about it communally and keeps each other accountable and demonstrates that they believe it’s important, it’s more likely to happen and more likely to be sustainable,” Dr Brockis says.

“It’s about giving ourselves permission to ensure that we are really healthy. We should be the role models for health, rather than people coming in and thinking, ‘Oh Doctor, you don’t look so well, what’s wrong with you?’”

Fit, fast and focused

What’s the end game? Better physical and mental health – but for those with others’ health in their hands, it goes further than that.

“It’s about making sure we’re always able to think well and really clearly and with the degree of focus we need at the right time,” Dr Brockis says.

“That’s where the notion of cognitive health comes into play. It incorporates physical and mental wellbeing.

“We have the knowledge base, that’s what we’re taught in medical school. It’s how well we apply that knowledge that’s vital and that’s where cognitive health is so critical.

“We can’t afford to make mistakes when somebody else’s wellbeing or even their life may depend on our decisions and our intuition as to what’s going on.”

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