It should come as no surprise to anyone that when compared to other Australia professionals, doctors are reported to have substantially higher rates of psychological distress, burnout and attempts at, or ideation of, suicide. The long hours combined with the pressure and the demands that come with the job creates a melting pot of stress and anxiety.
In 2013, beyondblue published the results of a survey they conducted that delved into the mental health of doctors as well as medical students. The outcome backed up what people had thought to be true; a lot of our doctors are struggling under the weight of the job but many are not willing to speak to a professional to get help.
Stigmatising attitudes are still prevalent within the profession, and there is a high level of expectation among the ranks to never become the patient. Mental health disorders are sometimes seen as a sign that the doctor is less competent than their peers. Partly because of this, doctors have learned to soldier on and most do not let the mental health disorder they are suffering from impact on their work.
Another reason they continue on without seeking help is because of mandatory reporting on doctors presenting with some mental health disorders. Because of this, there is a fear of losing their right to practice. Within the beyondblue survey, reasons for not seeking professional help included: not having time, preferring not to seek help, embarrassment, concerns about career development / progress as well as concern about the impact on registration and the right to practice. And so, instead of taking the very advice they would give their patients – which is to speak to a professional – doctors are trying to work through their problems on their own.
What can be done?
The federal government has recently announced that it will make changes to the controversial mandatory reporting law that has been viewed as dangerous to doctors’ health in the past years.
As part of the mandatory reporting, medical practitioners are obliged to report doctors who may post a public risk. However, who is at risk and how that is judged is a point that is often debated. According to insiders of the medical profession and their families, it is too rigid and punitive.
However, the guidelines for this reporting aren’t standard across Australia, so the federal government will be working with state governments to implement a new reporting system that is aimed to keep doctors safe across the board. So far, proposals include aligning with Western Australia where reporting exemptions are made for medical professionals who treat doctors for mental health related issues.
The changes are significant on a couple of levels, one of them being even just the symbolic importance that the federal government is publicly supporting doctors by making changes to the controversial reporting laws.
If the changes come through, hopefully it will be the first step in doctors becoming more comfortable seeking help for mental health issues.
How doctors can help themselves
In the meantime, doctors are fully encouraged to look after their own mental wellbeing as well. This is regardless of their current mental health state, as sometimes prevention is better than cure.
There are a number of things doctors can practice in order to keep on top of their wellbeing. These include, but are not limited to:
When you are doing crazy hours and are on your feet all day, exercising is quite likely the last thing you’ll feel like doing. But once you are doing it you’ll be glad you made the effort.
The list of benefits from exercising is long. Of course there is the physical health side of things, such as staying in shape and helping prevent numerous conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes or Heart Disease.
Then there are the benefits of mental health that come with exercise. After a long day, going for a run or lifting weights can really relieve stress. The endorphins that are released can counteract the stress and lift your mood considerably, and it will also give you more energy over time.
Give yourself a break
If you are exhausted, it is a good idea to give yourself a break to rejuvenate. Long-term exhaustion doesn’t help in the fight against depression or anxiety, so allowing yourself time to relax has short-term as well as long-term benefits. Take annual leave – even just a few days off in a row will do wonders – or reduce your house so you have more time to rest and catch up. If you are in a job that won’t allow this kind of flexibility or holiday leave, it might be time to consider going locum.
Locum doctors work as hard as any other doctor out there, but if you plan your finances right, you will be able to take some time off between each work placement. So even though you are working hard, you will know when your next scheduled work break is coming up instead of never being able to find the time to have a holiday. Meanwhile, you are still working on – and moving forward with – your career, so you don’t have to worry about upsetting the wrong people by constantly taking leave.
Find a hobby
A mental break is just as good as a physical one. Take your mind off work by giving yourself something else to focus on. This can be anything that takes your interest; fishing, boating, gardening, cooking or even jigsaw puzzles. The list is endless and throwing yourself into something else on your days off can feel like a holiday in itself.
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