Small steps to improving mental wellbeing

The author of Is your job making you ill?, Dr Ellie Cannon, talks to OT  about life as a GP, pressures in the NHS, and starting small when thinking about work-life balance

Dr Ellie Cannon

It was always my childhood ambition to become a doctor.

I toyed with various specialties at medical school, from paediatrics to gastroenterology. I decided to become a GP when I realised how much I was interested in the holistic nature of health and the way jobs, relationships, home life and so on can influence illness as much as anatomy or physiology.

I found life as a junior doctor pretty stressful, which is no surprise given the emotional toll, the working hours and the huge change from student life.

I have always relied on family and friends to be my main outlet, my main focus and support structure, and still do now.

The health service has a serious problem with stress in the workplace.

It has all the ingredients to make a job super stressful: overwork, a lack of resources, emotionally draining cases and incredibly high caseloads for each member of staff. Sadly, it’s the perfect storm. My own general practice tackles it well. Although there is a team with junior and senior members, everyone has an open-door policy for communication and so it really doesn’t feel like there is a hierarchy. There is support no matter who is suffering or celebrating. We also have a communal coffee break for just 10 minutes every day where we talk about anything from Strictly to our most serious cases. It’s just the opportunity to informally engage and build supportive relationships. 

Work-related ill health could happen to anyone, no matter who they are or what they do.

I was inspired to write Is your job making you ill? one September a few years ago after seeing a deluge of teachers with work-related illness; the enormity of the issue was cemented in my mind. But when it’s you, it can be very difficult to know where to turn, who to speak to or where to find good quality help and bona fide advice. Patients often felt there was a lack of focused help or points of reference to support them. And many people, of course, don’t want to ask anyone for help for fear of judgement, stigma or embarrassment. My aim was to feature all the ideas, objectives and solutions from many consultations in a book, covering all the facets that work-related ill health touches. Essentially, this book is a self-help guide to stopping your job making you ill, without jeopardising the job itself. 

"The health service has a serious problem with stress in the workplace. It has all the ingredients to make a job super stressful: overwork, a lack of resources, emotionally draining cases and incredibly high caseloads"

While researching and writing the book, I learned that the figures on job-related mental health really are immense and they are rising year on year.

It is estimated that 12.5 million working days were lost in 2016–17 to job related stress, anxiety or depression with the average sufferer taking over 23 days off. That is very significant; once you have been off work for more than two weeks, your chances of returning successfully to work plummet. These issues are having a huge toll on the economy and the health of our society. 

My advice to health care professionals such as optometrists struggling to find a work-life balance is don’t just think about the big headline ideas to improve your work-life balance.

Start small. Think about your journey to work – can it be better? Can you walk a bit? Run? Cycle? This way you are stress relieving and exercising while you are travelling. Could you sit on the train and indulge in a mindfulness app or a great novel, rather than flicking through social media and status alerts? Invest in your relationships: this is the number one thing you can do for your mental health and work-life balance. Phone a friend each day. Sit down and talk over dinner with your partner and family. Put the phone away so you really spend quality time together. 

We need to talk more openly as a society about mental health and stress in the workplace, but thankfully there is more open dialogue about this now.

It may still be seen as a weakness or a trivial issue by some, but thankfully many workplaces and employers recognise the significance of it, and will put measures in place to ameliorate it. Seeking help for a mental health problem is no different to seeking help for a broken leg. That’s what I tell my patients.

About Dr Cannon

Dr Ellie Cannon is a GP, health writer, author and broadcaster. Her latest book, Is your job making you ill? How to survive and thrive when it happens to you, is published by Piatkus. Dr Cannon read medicine at Cambridge University and then completed her clinical training at the Royal Free Hospital, London before embarking on a career in General Practice. She writes a weekly health column in the Mail on Sunday and Mail online, is a frequent contributor to Netdoctor, and is the resident GP columnist for Best. She is also appears as the on-screen GP for Sky News Sunrise, is the regular doctor on LBC’s Health Hour, and is one of the key medical experts on Channel 4’s Health Freaks and Doctor in Your House. This is her second book.