Reaching & Recovering From Burnout: Breaking the Stigma
6 July 2023
Dr Keith Grimes shares his personal experiences of reaching a point of occupational burnout. With a focus on the importance of nurturing a culture of openness, Dr Grimes breaks the stigma, encouraging others to seek support and sharing what helped him on his journey back to health.
The truth about burnout
Burnout can be a very strange and lonely place.
When I was invited to write a foreword for Pluxee's latest workplace benefits survey, I was eager to dig into it and better understand how those working in the healthcare sector were taking care of themselves. I hoped things had moved on in the past few years, especially in light of the pandemic and the growing pressures on our workforce. At first, I was surprised that, despite there being a wide range of different benefits out there, we don’t seem to be making full use of them. Then again, when you’re suffering from burnout, you can be peculiarly resistant to recognising what is happening and asking for help.
My own brush with burnout was as personal and distressing as it is for any of the very many affected by this growing problem, but entirely typical. Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion driven by chronic workplace stress. Those affected will struggle with feelings of tiredness or depletion, a sense of distance or negativity towards their job, and reduced efficiency. In 2017, as a busy NHS GP working in an urgent care centre, I was a poster boy for the condition. Many years of chronic stress had left me struggling to cope, and I felt less and less happy in my work. I’d resent going into the surgery, yet I’d find it difficult to leave things behind when I left. I was exhausted yet felt driven to work even harder just to try and get on top of things. To make room for this, I withdrew from friends and family, believing that if I could just focus on my work, I might just get on top of things and feel better. In hindsight, it’s miraculous that I didn’t buckle sooner.
When the day came that I could no longer carry on, it felt like everything happened all at once. I remember the day with absolute clarity - Wednesday, 21st of June, 2017. A hot summer day, normal in all aspects apart from the fact I couldn’t make even the simplest clinical decisions. I went home for lunch and broke down in front of my wife, having reached the end of my ability to cope with the stress.
When you are faced with a moment like this, you suddenly realise the importance of asking for help. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing wife, supportive family and GP, and the rapid response of the Practitioner Health Programme. This service, provided as a workplace benefit for healthcare workers in the NHS, had expanded just months earlier, and they were able to respond quickly to my distress. When I finally asked for help, it was there, and I cannot thank everyone enough for carrying me when I was unable to support myself.
Recovering from burnout
Two years later, I was in a new job, leading a group of talented doctors building AI-powered symptom checkers. My experience of burnout has left me with a passion for breaking down the taboo of talking about our mental health and wellness because it was the sense of loneliness that prevented me from asking for the help that was available for so long. So, when I was offered the opportunity, I shared my story with my colleagues by speaking at the company standup and joining the Mental Health group at work to enhance the support we gave to others. In doing so, I was overwhelmed by the messages I received from others who felt just as I had, just as lonely and just as unsure of what to do. It was a powerful lesson in the value of compassionate leadership, modelling vulnerability and honesty, and reinforcing the normality of seeking the help of others. Our own Employee Assistance Programme and team of Mental Health First Aiders were there to help those who made contact return to health.
Communication: Breaking the stigma
I often say to my patients that recovering from stress and burnout takes almost as long as it took to get there. It’s as if you are holding your breath and swimming downwards until you realise you need to breathe and look upwards to see that the surface is far above. I was helped back to fresh air over the subsequent weeks and months and then supported in my workplace to return to health and wellness again. I’ve been working on staying that way ever since!
We read in the survey about how there is a mountain of unused benefits for workers, and in part, this is down to a lack of awareness of what is out there. In my case, sharing my story was just one way of letting others know what's out there. If doing the same again can help you, or someone you work alongside, it will be time very well spent.
Remember that it is okay not to feel okay and just as okay to talk about it. I’m sharing some links below that might help you take that first step or refresh your memory about the things you can do to stay well. The Burnout Symptom Test might be a good start, or you can read more about the Employee Assistance Programme. Speaking from experience, it’s a decision you will not regret.
About our guest blogger
Dr Keith Grimes
Dr Keith Grimes is a Digital Health & Innovation Consultant, Clinical Product Manager, and experienced General Practitioner with over 25 years of experience in primary care, informatics, and medical leadership.
By utilising AI and digital health technology to address the growing gap between the demand and supply of healthcare worldwide, he has successfully led clinical and product teams in developing world-class, data-driven products at Babylon, such as Symptom Checker, Monitor, and Health IQ.
Dr. Grimes has spoken extensively around the globe and served as an expert panelist for the NHS Topol Review and the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on AI. He is currently completing his Executive Master's thesis on the topic, "How Healthtech Organizations Can Maximise the Value of Their Clinical Subject Matter Experts," to be published in Autumn 2023.