Tuesday, 7 March 2017

What working as a junior doctor has taught me about managing stress

Stress management at work

It's been over seven months now since I hung my stethoscope around my neck and took those first steps onto the gastroenterology ward, ready to start my new life as a junior doctor. Since then I've survived long days, night shifts, weekends on-call and all manner of tasks faced by doctors every single day. I've learned plenty - from exactly what information I need to hand to call the microbiologists, how to speedily write discharge letters before pharmacy shuts, to which wards will always have a supply of the particular things I want in order to take blood or site a cannula. 

The most important thing I've learned, though? Well, that would be the stress management side of things. 

Frequently people say "I couldn't do your job, it's too stressful!" when they find out what I do. And it's true - the job does have plenty of stress factors, but the key is simply learning to manage it. The things I've learned aren't specific to medicine though, they can probably be applied to pretty much any stressful job!

The overall thing though is that you are ultimately the one to take responsibility for your own stress levels. Other people can, and will, help out - but only if you acknowledge how important it is to take care of yourself. 

Stress Management at Work: What I've learned while working as a junior doctor

The busier you are, the more you need to make time for yourself.

When the to-do list is growing faster than you can clear it and the demands are coming in thick and fast, it's easy to get caught up and forget to look out for yourself. But with being busy comes a need to make more decisions - and you need to be in a good state in order to do this! Even on the most hectic of on-call shifts, I make sure to take at least a lunch break. Just twenty or thirty minutes to sit down, have something to eat and drink and just rest my mind for a moment. Everything always feels much more manageable after this.

You've nearly always got more time than you think you do.

So many times at the start of my job we would finish the ward round at just before two o'clock in the afternoon, and we would have generated a pretty sizeable jobs list. It always seemed like it was going to be impossible to clear it by five, yet between us, we almost always managed it. It's easy to see a long list of jobs to be done and just panic at how long it will take. But taking a step back, rationalising them and sorting into a sensible priority list makes it far more manageable.

Also in this comes managing tasks that seem like they need to be done right now. Facing sick patients, there's an urge to run around, panic and stress that they are about to deteriorate right in front of you. Actually there's almost always time to approach things calmly and assess the situation. Stressing doesn't make anything happen any faster... (apart from maybe the speed your own heart is racing along at!)

It's essential to switch off from work at the end of the day.

This is something that's come more easily to me than I expected. When I get home after a shift, I don't tend to give much thought to what's happened that day. From home, there's nothing I can do to change anything at the hospital. (Well, I could call if I was really worried about having forgotten something.) I like to get back from work and throw myself straight into doing something unrelated - whether that's going to the gym, cooking, blogging or watching TV. 

Sharing your stresses can make it easier.

Starting my orthopaedic job I felt totally overwhelmed by the new responsibilities and the totally different way the department ran. For the first few weeks, I thought it was just me. Turns out the rest of the team felt pretty similar - offloading to each other about some of the ridiculous scenarios we faced was incredibly therapeutic! It's easier now to ask each other for help when we're busy and to have a bit of a giggle via the Whatsapp group.

Accept that you can only do as much as one person can.

There is no way to be in two places at once. I can only do as much as one person can manage. So if that means something has to wait or to be done by someone else, then that's that. I prioritise tasks with this in mind - knowing I can only do things one at a time, I just have to pick whichever one is the next most urgent. And if I can't do something, or it will take a long time until I can, I'm honest about that. 

Fake calm until you are calm.

This is something I've learned from more senior doctors. If you start flapping and rushing around because you feel stressed, it justs winds you up further. Remember to keep breathing and do tasks as you would normally - no corner cutting! If you rush and make mistakes, you only have to take more time later to correct them. Similarly, there has been many a time I've found myself running/speed walking around the hospital, dashing between tasks - only to find that actually all I'm doing is making myself feel more stressed and needing to compose myself again before each task. Reminding myself that yes, I'm busy but am still only one person helps relax my mind enough to lower those stress levels.

It's rarely a life-or-death scenario.

Even working as a doctor, I'm rarely faced with anything genuinely life or death. When I'm feeling overwhelmed, sometimes it helps to step back and look at the bigger picture. Realistically, and without catastrophising what's the worst case scenario? Putting things into context massively helps me to deal with the stressors.

Stethoscope - junior doctor stress

What are your top tips for managing stress at work? Whether you're a doctor or do something entirely different for work, can you apply any of this?


  1. I love this - mostly because I'm about to go onto placement as an MA social work student and I'm worrying I won't be good enough or be able to manage the work load. However, I agree with everything you've said and think once I get into the swing of things, it'll be ok xxx

    Sam // What I Know Now

  2. Thanks for these! They all directly apply to my life right now. I'm finding dealing with things okay but I do get stressed really easily. I always start panicking when I'm on a never ending ward round with jobs building up by the minute... I think I need to remember that I always get through them somehow.

  3. Think this rings so true for so many!


  4. I find switching off at the end of the day SO difficult! I guess that's the problem with having a laptop you can bring home - though I do try to leave it in the office most of the time!

    NINEGRANDSTUDENT: A Lifestyle Blog

  5. I really enjoyed this post, it has made me feel a bit less anxious about being a junior doctor next year! Most of the F1's I have met have managed their time really well, so I am hoping that I will be the same once I get used to the job.

    Hannah xx


    When I'm busy I always think I don't have time to take a break but it's definitely something you need to do to keep sane. Some great tips here!

    Jess | www.jessandjoshcook.com x

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