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by Isabel Shaw
28 January 2020

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Wellbeing in practice: What I’ve learnt about practice manager stress

Management in Practice reporter Isabel Shaw recounts her time so far working on our wellbeing in practice series.

Until now, wellbeing and burnout among healthcare professionals have been exclusively mentioned in connection with clinical staff. This has naturally caused a stir amongst practice managers’ who are confronted with similar – if not the same – stresses and challenges, yet have not received the same recognition or sympathy from the public.

Dr Afsana Safa, a doctor who spoke at the Kings Fund conference back in November, voiced her astonishment over the lack of concern for practice managers: ‘No one asks them if they’re okay, unlike medical staff who are a bit more protected and helped, the people behind the scenes are just left – I find it striking,’ she said. 

In response to this, Management in Practice has been working on a campaign aimed at helping and promoting practice manager wellbeing, which we’ve named wellbeing in practice.

For this, I interviewed several practice managers who all spoke passionately about their work. They also mentioned its negative impact on their wellbeing and mental health. 

The overarching complaint was that a heavy workload was forcing practice managers to work overtime and as a consequence of this they were struggling to switch off. In a similar vein, some spoke of the struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

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Another complaint – perhaps a more surprising but very understandable one – was the isolation the job brought. Unlike GPs, who are faced with patients all day long, practice managers are often locked behind screens and faced with emails rather than people. This can lead to loneliness, which of course also negatively impacts wellbeing. 

Digging down further into the issue, I spoke to a handful of mental health experts and motivational speakers who each offered different tips and potential advice for practice managers struggling under the pressure. 

From speaking to them, a lot seem to have come up with their own means of alleviating stress, whether that be through spending time with grandchildren or crashing on the sofa at home and immersing themselves in games on the PlayStation. 

But is this really all we can offer practice managers? Some tips and tricks to get through the day – a painkiller rather than a cure? And is it fair to place the burden of managing their stress on their own shoulders, when it is simply a side effect of something out of their control?

When I asked how they would like to be helped, some suggested that their job could be shared among more people – the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ position a practice manager is expected to carry out is arguably the root cause of their stress, and so perhaps this is a good solution. 

Even Dr Johnny Marshall, president of the National Association of Primary care, who I also spoke to as part of the series, echoed a similar sentiment, in that we should be using this big time of change within the NHS management structure to also change the way practice managers work, to reduce their burden or ensure they have more support from CCGs. 

Practice managers play a pivotal role in general practice, they not only carry their practices through times of change but they’re also an entire legal team, HR team and IT. They play the role of counsellor and deal with complaints from patients. In more ways than one, they’re the captain of the sometimes bumpy ship that is primary care, and you have to take care of your captain if you want to look after the ship.