Professional coaching can reduce burnout in doctors

Evelyn Lewin

6/08/2019 3:08:34 PM

Researchers have found coaching should be considered a ‘complementary strategy’ in reducing work-related stress.

Stressed man on phone
Phone-based coaching sessions included topics such as debriefing, setting goals and designing actions to incorporate into daily life.

When the World Health Organization declared burnout a medical condition earlier this year it came as little surprise to many healthcare professionals.
Meanwhile, research has shown that doctors are at increased risk of burnout relative to workers in other fields.
But help may be at hand.
New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine has found a potential way to alleviate symptoms of burnout in doctors – through professional coaching.
This is the first study to specifically explore the effects of coaching on physician burnout.
The randomised trial involved 88 practising physicians – 48 women and 40 men – who filled out several self-assessment questionnaires at the start of the study.
After that initial survey, half of the participants were placed in the intervention group, while the other half comprised the control group.
Participants in the intervention group completed six sessions with a credentialed professional coach (who was not a doctor) over a period of six months, while the control group received no coaching.
The intervention group received an initial one-hour coaching session followed up by five 30-minute sessions, every two to three weeks.
All sessions were performed by telephone, and included topics such as debriefing, setting goals and designing actions to incorporate into daily life.
After that period, all participants again completed the same questionnaires.
The researchers found that absolute rates of overall burnout decreased by 17.1% in the intervention group, while they increased by 4.9% in the control group.
Meanwhile, absolute rates of high emotional exhaustion at five months decreased by 19.5% in the intervention group and increased by 9.8% in the control group.
This led researchers to conclude that such coaching can improve the overall quality of life of doctors, while also helping to build resilience. They therefore said professional coaching should be considered a ‘complementary strategy’ to be used in combination with other approaches to reduce work-related stress.
Dr Elizabeth Hindmarsh, GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Abuse and Violence network, applauds such research.
‘It’s certainly very important that we look at ways of helping [GPs] to decrease their burnout and increase their feelings of wellbeing,’ she told newsGP.
‘I’ve been advocating that, as GPs, we should be getting professional support, and I’ve been advocating we should be doing that individually or in small peer groups, either using an outside person to help with that, or in a peer support group of GPs.’
Dr Hindmarsh believes that, in terms of cost, these supports could be covered under professional development.
While the new research looked at the benefits of professional coaching, Dr Hindmarsh noted that might not be the answer for reducing burnout in everyone.
‘I think there’s not a one-size-fits-all [answer],’ she said.
‘But we need to talk about it more and make it much more acceptable.’
Dr Hindmarsh said she is personally not aware of many GPs who actually seek professional coaching to help avert symptoms of burnout.
She laments the fact that, as a profession, seeking support to reduce burnout is not widely discussed in healthcare.
‘It’s not talked about very much, and it’s not embraced very widely,’ she said.
Dr Hindmarsh believes the lack of conversation on the topic acts as a barrier for GPs to seek support. Other barriers, she explained, include a pervasive belief that GPs ‘don’t have the time’ to seek help, and that they ‘don’t need it’.
GPs may also worry about the ramifications of seeking support, Dr Hindmarsh said.
However, lead researcher Dr Liselotte Dyrbye believes helping physicians manage the stress of their job is ‘crucial’.
She said although many doctors have a good informal support system, professional coaches can provide a safe setting in which to admit to issues such as perceived vulnerabilities and uncertainties.
‘We really think it can improve physicians’ ability to manage their careers and change the detrimental aspects of their work environments, so that ultimately they can do their job well without feeling overwhelmed,’ Dr Dyrbye said.
Previous research published in The BMJ Open found that more than a third of GPs experience psychological burnout, with male doctors particularly affected.

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Margaret Swenson   7/08/2019 9:02:45 AM

The biggest stress these days is everyone seems to be after a GP - whether Patients / APHRA/ or Medicare / Government ..... coming after us - hard enough to keep up to date with our medicine and the convoluted Medicare system which has new changes coming out all the time too ... plus we worry about patients health ... and they wonder why we get Burnout !! So even more issues with accreditation and now shared debt collection . And if you’re a practice owner, all the extra paperwork etc but this latest onslaught where we have people in positions of power ruling on issues they don’t understand and assuming we are all criminals trying to rort the Medicare system is an insult and detrimental to our mental health. APHRA and Medicare and PSR review boards - many of these over sight boards have few GP and medical doctors some even have hospital staff / nurses / chiropractors etc who don’t even know billing - let alone Medicare billing. And we wonder why doctors don’t want to do GP !

Dr K   7/08/2019 10:04:16 AM

If this is shown to be beneficial (albeit in a relatively small trial) then I bet there are others like me who will read this article and then think "Hey, maybe this is something I could try, but how would I go about finding an appropriately trained coach of this sort, who is competent and experienced in dealing with highly intelligent, focussed, driven and empathetic professionals?" There are plenty of ads for 'life coaches' around but it's like ads for personal fitness trainers (or for that matter, other health professionals) - how do you know which ones are actually a suitable 'fit' for a particular group of people? It would be great if the RACGP and ACRRM offices in each state could develop a list of such people to be able to suggest to GPs looking to pursue a part of the overall wellbeing programs already available. Maybe they already are and I don't know about it?

Jocelyn Lowinger   7/08/2019 10:07:39 AM

It is entirely gratifying to read this research. I have recently completed a Masters of Science in Coaching Psychology and have been coaching doctors in relation to these issues since 2015. More and more doctors are finding their way to coaching. Coaching should be accredited as a CPD activity in all Colleges and the burden of payment should not be in the individual doctor but up to workplaces, Colleges, insurers and the like to provide access to.

DR. AHAD KHAN   7/08/2019 11:35:57 AM

The best way to avoid ' Burn-out ' in GPs is to relegate allof their Work to Patients / Nurse Practitioners / Pharmacists / Physio-therapists, etc etc etc. !!!

Everyone wants to do the Job of a GP !!!

Even our beloved College, RACGP is after us GPs.

When is our College ever going to stand up for us GPs at the Coalface.

When is our College going to DEMAND from the Govt. of the Day, an Adequate Remuneration for what we GPs do at the Coalface.
When is our College going to Co-ordinate Nationwide, a SINGLE ONE DAY STRIKE - - this will make the Populace will realise our Value & stand behind us & this will bring the Govt. of the day to its knees.



Sharee Johnson   8/08/2019 10:05:23 AM

Terrific to see this research supporting what we know in practice. I agree with Jocelyn Lowinger. It is very important to understand who your coach is, what their experience and expertise is. A life coach is not the same as a Professional accredited coach. I wrote about this in Coaching Life Magazine in April, you can read the article here: Other contributors are right to note that the health system, including medicare rebating, undermining their generally helpful intent. There is a significant conversation going on between the various doctor help agencies about individual care and systems change. Coaching wont change the system but it can build skills in people to cope and to learn how they can impact on the system. Systems change is slow, but it is ultimately created by people, people with skills, vision and intent who are supported to keep going towards change.

Naseem Isaacs   19/08/2019 4:34:32 PM

Have been a GP after qualifying in South Africa 1976.Had to make the most painful decision 1978 when my son stood with us watching tyres burn etc + we were open @night working by candlelight! I must say research is one thing. But I have to agree with what Dr.Khan said.When are all the authority’s going to do what they are supposed to do? I have been burnt out since 1994.. not coping even though we have a practice 2km from Gold Coast Hospital! We cannot get GP’s because of all the red tape involved ! Demoralising draconian outdated laws in this beautiful country which I AM proud to call home!