Managing Stress and avoiding burn out in Primary care

08 May 2023 By Libby McCaughey

The demands experienced by health care professionals have always been high but increasing pressure and workload from the pandemic and its aftermath has brought stress to a different level. More employees in the health care sector are reporting stress as having an impact on their work and home life than ever before, and while the work may be rewarding, stress and burnout are having a major impact on health, wellbeing and job retention.

Stress and burnout in Primary Care

There are several different things that you need to be aware of if you work in the healthcare sector regarding stress and mental wellbeing – this blog aims to take a closer look at what signs to look out for and how to manage and prevent burnout and stress.

There has always been a stigma surrounding stress and mental health issues when it comes to workplace pressure – even more so in the healthcare sector as many people worry about confidentiality when disclosing their symptoms. While you are expected to recognise symptoms in your patients and those in your care, it can be difficult to spot when you or someone close to you are dealing with stress and burnout.

Symptoms of healthcare burnout include:

  • Feelings of isolation and depersonalisation

  • Chronic physical and emotional fatigue

  • Reduced feelings of sympathy or empathy

  • Irritability

  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns

  • Frequent illness

  • Withdrawing from friends and family

  • Hypersensitivity or total insensitivity when dealing with emotive situations

It is important that you know what signs to look for if you think yourself or a colleague are struggling with stress or burnout, as many symptoms are often overlooked and considered ‘part of the job’. If left untreated, the side effects of burnout can lead to poor job performance and medical mistakes, as well as having a serious impact on your home and personal life.

What can cause healthcare burnout?

There are several key elements that can contribute significantly to stress and burnout for healthcare workers including:

  • Support and working relationships – low support from managers, lack of appreciation, respect and the stigmatisation of seeking help

  • Workload and leadership – high demands and intense workloads, long hours with few breaks, short staffing, poor managementand lack of control

  • Training and development – lack of opportunities and inadequate training and development

  • Work and home life balance - conflicts, long shifts and little time for rest and relaxation

  • Personal issues – existing mental health problems, low resilience, poor self-care and over commitment

This is a very general list, and you may find that there are other contributing factors if you are feeling burnt out, but this is a good place to start. If you understand the reasons behind burnout and stress, then you can help to treat the underlying causes.

Noticing Burnout

To help prevent burnout, you must first be able to notice the signs. It is easy to know the symptoms, but many of these can be easily hidden or overlooked so it is important that you can spot the signs. In many cases, burnout affects healthcare workers when their job is too physically and mentally demanding of them for far too long. Some early warning signs of burnout include:

  • Disappearing acts – not answering calls, unexplained long absences during the day or frequent sick days

  • Bypass syndrome – where junior nurses or doctors find ways to avoid seeking the help and opinions of fully qualified healthcare professionals

  • Bursts of temper and rage and reacted badly to small events

  • Low work rates – slowness in doing procedures and patients

  • Poor tolerance or understanding of work and the inability to compromise

  • Uncertainty about career and disillusionment with medicine – a career that is truly a vocation

How you can manage stress and burnout

The first and most important step to take if you need to manage stress in your workplace is to speak to someone. We have put together some tips, but you need to speak to someone – whether that is in a professional capacity or your manager. Prevention is the best cure for stress and burnout, but you cannot tackle all the problems and causes on your own. It may be that your workplace needs to enforce some changes to help support their staff, but they do need to be aware first.

1.       Engage in regular exercise – physical exercise has been proven to decrease stress and improve emotional wellbeing. While you might think that you get enough exercise at work when you are running around, you need to be engaging in restorative exercise where your mind is not focused on work. It is critical that you find time for this and make it a priority. It can help to find an exercise partner as it makes it much more fun – but don’t spend all of your session talking about work! You need to be able to take your mind off the stress and pressure.

2.       Spend time with friends and family- this may seem like an obvious one, but when people begin to feel burnout, they often become exhausted and begin to withdraw away from others. This can lead to social isolation, and it is important that even if you feel tired on your days off or after a shift you stick to commitments and social activities. Look for ways to connect with friends and family and make sure you schedule plans so that you are not left on your own. You may find that spending time away from social media will help to improve your mental health and decrease stress.

3.       Identify what you can and cannot control at work – every healthcare employee has a long list of things that they are frustrated with, even before the pandemic! However, you need to be able to identify and determine the things that you can control and focus on those. It is important that you do not spend time and energy on the things that you cannot control, as doing so will lead to feelings of helplessness and despair.

4.       Monitor your emotions – there will be days where you are feeling low on energy and tired, and sometimes this is just life. It is important that you know how to differentiate on general everyday stress and burnout. Make sure you take time to keep on top of your self-care regime on days when you feel like this so the pressure doesn’t grow anymore. This could be starting a new book, running a bath, or snuggling into the sofa to watch your favourite film. If you notice that you are constantly feeling down and exhausted, this is your body’s signal that you need to refuel and look after yourself.

5.       Create firm boundaries – working in healthcare is a very demanding job and can become all consuming if you let it. When your shift ends you need to be able to leave your thoughts, feelings and grievances at work and focus your time spent at home on your friends, family and activities that benefit you. While this might seem easier said than done, try to be present and in the moment when you are at home and you will find that you enjoy the time off work even more.

6.       Get enough sleep – this might seem obvious, but many people underestimate the value of a good sleep. You may need to adjust your sleeping schedule depending on your shift pattern, but you need to try and get at least 8 full hours of sleep a night. Getting enough sleep can help to improve concentration, alertness, mood, stamina and motivation.


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