Matt Mayer on GP burnout

According to the MCG Healthcare Primary Care Survey, 99% of GPs feel overworked. It’s no surprise when that leads to burnout, but the biggest reason why GPs face burnout could be something else entirely. 

We spoke to Dr Matt Mayer, MCG Healthcare’s Wellbeing Lead, about the roots of GP burnout and how you can best look after your mental health in general practice. 

What causes GPs to burn out? 
Obviously, the top of the list would be overwork, but it might not just be in the volume of work. I think it's having to do tasks that exceed your sustained capacity to be able to deliver them. That doesn't necessarily always mean hard work. It could be the opposite. It could be that you're being given repetitive menial tasks which have nothing to do with your job and that is then making you disillusioned. I would say where there is a mismatch between what you've been trained and equipped to do, and what you are being asked to do, that can make you burn out. 

How can you tell that you're heading for burnout? 
You might not be getting any satisfaction out of your work, and not taking pride in it. That might be demonstrated by taking the path of least resistance and cutting corners. There’s irritability, being very combative with colleagues and being very snappy, which can be a symptom, but that tends to be a symptom of the more mental health consequences of burnout rather than the burnout itself. 

There's excessive risk aversion, overthinking things, constantly worrying ‘what if I do something wrong?’ That then feeds into a vicious cycle, because then you're going to spend more time and headspace trying to stop that from happening. And you're going to stay at work later and you're going to make things worse. 

A lack of empathy is another sign. Finding yourself indifferent to patients and just going through the motions. 

You can also find yourself dreading work. I see a lot of GPs who say to me that they’re on the verge of a panic attack on most Sunday evenings. 

Those are the main signs, but they're quite hard to spot if they rely on another GP spotting them themselves, because most of them are internal. The main problem I encounter in my job is a lot of GPs don't see that they're burning out or they come to me for help when it’s too late. 
So what can GPs do once they spot signs of burnout? 
One of the best safeguards is communicating and talking with other colleagues and other GPs. If you’re just in a room on your own all day, that's obviously an exacerbating feature. So, I would always say one of the best things you can do is spend more time with your colleagues and ask for help.  

You need to look after yourself as well. There's a saying that we have, which we took from the airline industry: ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’. You can’t try and help anyone else unless you're sure that you're safe. 
What if you didn’t spot the signs in time, and you’re already burnt out? What can you do about it? 
Again, the first thing to do is ask for help from your colleagues.  

You need to tell your colleagues. If you're salaried, you need to tell your line manager. If you’re a partner, you should talk to your partners. If you're a locum or a freelancer, there are various places to go to for support — if you’re working through MCG, that’s what I’m here for.  

The second most important thing I would say to anyone who thinks they’re burning out, is you need to treat it as a medical problem, and you need to go to your doctor. You need to go to your own GP as a patient. 

Your GP will probably then signpost you to one of the services that can help you. There's the Practitioner Health Programme, there's your LMC, and there’s the BMA. This is really important — even if you're not a member of a BMA they have a counselling, wellbeing and support line for any doctor. The key is restoring your resilience by topping it up through adequate rest, recuperation, and support.

Matt is a locum and out-of-hours GP, Chief Executive of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire LMCs, and MCG Healthcare’s GP Wellbeing Lead. If you’re a GP who’s worked through MCG Healthcare within six weeks, and you’re worried about burnout, or you’re facing any mental health challenges, contact your consultant who can arrange a wellbeing call with Matt. 

One key to protecting your wellbeing is to find a work environment that fits you. MCG Healthcare prides itself on finding perfect matches between GPs and surgeries. 

Email or call 0203 962 5640, and we will help you find your perfect role. 

You spend your life looking after others. We’re here to look after you. 

About the author
Dr Matt Mayer

Dr Matt Mayer is Chair of the campaign and welfare organisation GP Survival and a representative on the GPC’s regional and sessional GP committees, Dr Mayer sees his role as an ambassador for those at the coalface of general practice


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