Article published in Family Practice (accepted 2017)
Strategies to improve General Practitioner wellbeing: A focus group study
Running Head: General Practitioners’ burnout coping strategies
Louise H. Hall1,2, Judith Johnson1,2, Jane Heyhoe2, Ian Watt3, Kevin Anderson4,5,
Daryl B. O’Connor1
1. School of Psychology, University of Leeds; Leeds, England
2. Yorkshire Quality and Safety Research Group, Bradford Institute for Health
Research, Bradford Royal Inﬁrmary; Bradford, England
3. Department of Health Sciences, University of York; York, England
4. Haxby Group Surgeries; Hull, England
5. Hull York Medical School; York, England
Corresponding author: Miss L. H. Hall; School of Psychology, University of Leeds;
Lifton Place, Leeds, LS2 9JT, England; L.H.Hall13@leeds.ac.uk
Word Count: 3,261
Organisational changes are needed to improve GP wellbeing and burnout levels
Organisational and individual awareness and training around burnout could help
Increases in resources (staff) could reduce workload and improve wellbeing
Practice and individual-level strategies could reduce burnout in the interim
Introducing daily coffee/lunch breaks could greatly benefit staff wellbeing
More support from various sources (colleagues, public, government) is needed
Primary care physicians are particularly prone to high levels of burnout and poor wellbeing. Despite
this, no qualitative studies have specifically investigated the best ways to improve wellbeing and
prevent burnout in primary care physicians. Previous interventions within primary care have been
person-oriented and mainly focused on mindfulness, but there has been no prior research on whether
general practitioners (GPs) deem this to be the best approach.
To explore strategies that could improve GP wellbeing and reduce or prevent burnout, based on GP
perceptions of the workplace factors that affect their levels of wellbeing and burnout.
Five focus groups were conducted, with 25 GPs (locums, salaried, trainees, and partners) in the UK,
between September 2015 and February 2016. Focus groups took place in GP practices and private
meeting rooms. Discussions were centered on the workplace factors that they perceived to influence
their wellbeing, along with strategies that they use either personally, or as a practice, to try and prevent
burnout. Furthermore, strategies that could feasibly be implemented by individuals and practices to
improve wellbeing, as well as changes that are needed by groups or organizations that are external to
their practice (e.g. the government) to improve the working conditions, were explored. Thematic
analysis was conducted on the transcripts.
Based on the contributors to burnout and workplace wellbeing that the participants identified, the
following feasible strategies were suggested: compulsory daily coffee breaks, increasing self and
organizational awareness of the risks of burnout, and mentoring/buddy systems. System-level
organizational changes were voiced as vital, however, to improve the wellbeing of all primary care
physicians. Increasing resources seemed to be the ideal solution, to allow for more administrative staff
These strategies merit further consideration by researchers, physicians, healthcare organizations, and
policy makers both in the UK and beyond. Failure to do so may result in healthcare staff becoming
even more burnt-out, potentially leading to a loss of doctors from the workforce.
Burnout and poor mental wellbeing in healthcare professionals are rising internationally1-3. Burnout, “a
state of vital exhaustion”4 can be characterized by feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization,
and reduced personal accomplishment5. Wellbeing is a broader concept, with clinicians often viewing it
as a spectrum from low to high6. Low wellbeing includes symptoms or diagnoses of depression and/or
anxiety, and high wellbeing as feelings of happiness and flourishing7. Primary care physicians are at
high risk of these ailments8,9. Rates of burnout in UK General Practitioners (GPs) are particularly high
compared with other European countries and similar to rates within the US and Canada 10-12, leading to
concerns that UK general practice is currently ‘in crisis’ 13. Negative implications of burnout and poor
wellbeing for the individual include an unfavourable work-life balance, poorer quality of life, substance
abuse, and suicidality12,14. Implications of staff burnout and poor wellbeing on healthcare organisations
include high staff turnover, increased sickness absence, poorer quality of care (e.g. negative attitudes
towards patients and reduced patient satisfaction), and poorer patient safety outcomes (e.g. increased
likelihood of making a wrong diagnosis or medication error) 15-17. All of these outcomes also cost
healthcare organizations billions of pounds/dollars annually18,19.
Several studies have investigated the factors contributing to stress, burnout, and depression
within primary care physicians. They have suggested that causes include high workload, difficult
patients, lack of support, and lack of control8,10,20. The majority of research however, has been survey
based, lacking the depth and explanatory power that qualitative methods provide. In some instances
little justification was provided for why particular organizational variables were measured. Whilst one
study by Fisher et al., 21 has taken a qualitative approach, they focused solely on workload stressors and
strategies to deal specifically with workload. Our study aims to build upon these findings and extend
them by focusing on general workplace stressors (including but not limited to workload), along with
potential strategies to deal with these stressors and their effects on the individuals.
Despite similar demands amongst healthcare staff, not all practitioners experience such
problems. Strategies used by resilient physicians and practices to cope with workplace demands
include; limiting one’s practice/reducing work hours, improving communication and team functioning,
having job control and seeking peer and personal support21-23. Although these strategies have been
found useful, they mostly rely on the physician themselves to ensure implementation. This requires
individuals to have the relevant resources (time, support, flexibility) to make changes to their routines.
Those who are already struggling and therefore have limited resources are less able to make these
amendments, keeping them trapped in a negative feedback loop.
Regarding formal interventions to reduce physician burnout, both organizational and
individual approaches have been successful, however no organizational interventions have been trialed
in primary care 24. Organizational interventions are warranted so that a) the responsibility for burnout
reduction is shared between the practitioner and the organization and b) working conditions improve
for all staff. Furthermore, many interventions simply aim to treat outcomes, without addressing the
cause of the problem. As such, our aim was to explore potential strategies that GPs think could improve
their wellbeing and reduce/prevent burnout, based on their perceptions of the workplace factors that
affect their levels of wellbeing and burnout. To accomplish this we took a two-part approach, to meet
the following objectives:
1) To understand which workplace factors GPs’ perceive to influence their levels of wellbeing
2) To explore strategies and changes that GPs think could improve their wellbeing/prevent
Five focus groups were conducted with a total of 25 practicing General Practitioners who worked in the
North of England. Each group consisted of three to six GPs. Three focus groups consisted of GPs
working within the same practices, the other two consisted of locum GPs. Participant and focus group
characteristics are displayed in Table 1.
Sex Job roles Part/Full-time
Mean age (range) Mean no. years as
1 GP surgery 2 45,000 6 2M, 4F 2 Trainees
2 Partners 1
3 FT, 1 PT,
35 (29 – 40)* 3.5 (0 – 11)*
2 Locums - - 4 2M, 2F 4 Locums 4 PT 47 (36 – 57) 17.5 (4 – 28)
3 Locums - - 5 2M, 3F 5 Locums 4 PT, 1FT 42.2 (34 – 56) 10.4 (0 – 28)
4 GP surgery 7 15,000 6 4M, 2F 6 Partners 6 FT 46 (35 – 55) 17.2 (8 – 28)
5 GP surgery 5 11,000 4 1M, 3F 3 Salaried
3 PT, 1FT 38.75 (33 – 44) 9.5 (4 – 17)
Focus Group Characteristics
M = Male, F = Female, *Missing two participants’ data
We recruited GPs via an existing network and then by a snowballing method between August 2015 and
February 2016. Participants who took part in the first focus group put the researchers in contact with
the practice managers in their associated practices. They also gave the researchers contact details of
their personal contacts within local locum groups. Potential participants were fully informed of the
topics to be discussed during the recruitment stage. LH conducted the semi-structured focus groups
either in practice premises, or at a mutually convenient alternative location. Once written informed
consent had been given by each participant, the questions listed in Box 1 were asked, with some room
for emerging discussions. The transcripts were audio-recorded and then transcribed verbatim. Focus
groups lasted 45minutes to 1.5 hours.
Box 1. Discussion topic guide
Thematic analysis (TA) was conducted based on Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six phase guidelines25. The
transcripts were coded by hand, based on inductive, semantic principles, from the first author’s realist
How would you define wellbeing?
How would you define burnout?
What would you consider to be the main contributors to wellbeing at work?
(Positive and negative contributors)
Do you have a way to try and minimize the impact these issues have on your
wellbeing? (Personally, as a practice)
Would you say that burnout is a worry generally among doctors?
Do you do anything to try and prevent burnout occurring?
Are you aware of any services or coping mechanisms that could help prevent
Do you think that burnout and/or poor wellbeing is increasing amongst doctors?
(Why? What’s changed?)
Are you encouraged to talk about your own wellbeing? (To your colleagues,
professionals, family. Is it a taboo?)
What, in your opinion, would be the best way to improve the wellbeing of GPs,
and prevent burnout? (Feasible ideas, if the sky was the limit)
epistemological approach. All transcripts were coded by LH, with 20% double coded by JH to provide
outside insight, allow discussions about the emerging themes, and guard against investigator bias. After
initial coding of all the transcripts, codes were grouped into themes and sub-themes. Any
disagreements regarding themes were discussed with one or more additional author until a consensus
was agreed. Once a thematic map had been generated, the authors revisited the entire data set to check
that the themes accurately reflected the majority of the data.
The focus groups were heterogeneous with regards to job position (partner, locum, etc.), but all
discussed very similar themes.
Objective 1: Contributors to wellbeing and burnout
When discussing which workplace factors contribute to their sense of wellbeing and levels of burnout,
two distinct themes emerged: Those that were internal to their practice and/or the individual, and those
that were external to their practice that they had no control over.
Internal influencers of wellbeing comprised of Team support, Variety (within their roles,
practices, or patients), Control (over their work environment and/or timetable), and an Intense and
unmanageable workload. The importance of working within a supportive, interactive team was
mentioned by all focus groups as particularly vital for good wellbeing. Those who felt like they did not
receive peer support or have the time to interact with their team described how it could have very
negative effects on their wellbeing.
External influencers of wellbeing were discussed in negative terms. These consisted of;
Increases in pressures and workload, Increases in patients’ expectations and complaints, the Negative
portrayal of general practice (in the media, by patients, and the government), and a Lack of support
(from the public, patients, the government, and the media). An increase in the amount of
administrative work that GPs have to do for external regulating organizations was described as adding
to their workload, adding stress, and taking away their time which would be better spent on direct
Objective 2: Strategies to improve wellbeing
Participants discussed possible strategies to improve wellbeing and prevent burnout in two similar
themes to the first objective: Strategies that could be implemented at an individual or practice level,
and changes needed at a higher, organizational or policy level.
Individual and practice level strategies
GPs discussed strategies that fell under the following categories; Breaks, Support, Physical needs,
Psychological strategies, and Control. There was some overlap between these sub-themes, particularly
between Breaks and Psychological strategies and Physical needs.
Breaks. Scheduling a coffee and/or lunch break into the working day was viewed as a feasible strategy
that would be very beneficial to their wellbeing. Having the opportunity and being encouraged to leave
their individual and often isolated offices, interact with their colleagues, and have a short respite from
work was seen as something that positively impacted on GPs’ wellbeing in practices where this was
already implemented, and something that those who did not get the chance to, wished they did.
“M1: (…) the coffee break in the middle of morning surgery. We try and get here and meet for
a bit of rest and recuperation (…) … I’ve definitely recognized that it is a positive factor for
our wellbeing and therefore it’s something that we need to maintain and cherish ….” [FG4]
Breaks served as fulfilling psychological needs by having that mental break from ‘being the doctor’
[M2, FG1], physical needs by having the chance to have a drink, some food, perhaps some fresh air,
and a toilet break, and social needs through interacting with colleagues. Lunch breaks were not viewed
as a realistic option that could be implemented, however one short coffee break a day was deemed
feasible. Participants voiced that even if GPs only briefly left their office to make a cup of tea and take
it back to their office, this very short respite and chance of interaction could be enough to make a big
change to their wellbeing.
Support (social, supervisory, workload, and from patients). Having social support within the practice,
peer-to-peer, and from both medics and non-medics outside of their practice was found to be useful for
preventing burnout. To improve support at the practice level, buddying and mentoring systems were
suggested, along with regular meetings to ‘check in’ with how team members are doing.
“F1: But I think also, looking after each other… I think we're quite good at looking over our
shoulder at the other person (… ) if you see somebody's got a really full load, getting them a
cup of tea, or going and seeing one of their extras, (…) is quite a positive thing about our
team that we tend to do.” [FG1]
A suggestion for improving support from patients was to communicate the state of the surgery with
them and ask for their patience and support.
Physical needs. In addition to the physical needs within the breaks theme (food and drink), participants
discussed the need to make time for exercise to support physical and psychological wellbeing. Exercise
additionally served their social needs through team sports, and as a psychological strategy through
being a form of ‘escapism’.
Psychological strategies. Strategies that participants used to deal with the emotional toll of patient
contacts included being emotionally guarded/setting boundaries, and isolating themselves. The latter
approach, however, was acknowledged to be unhealthy and did indeed worsen one participant’s ability
to cope. Maintaining awareness of the risk of burnout was voiced as a useful strategy that some
participants used. Additionally, it was mentioned that this could be implemented in practices through
discussions and meetings, and externally at the training stage. It was evident that awareness was needed
at the individual, practice, and external levels.
“F1: I agree. Self-awareness is often the key thing. I certainly wasn’t taught that in a training
stage. I think if trainees are taught or encouraged to be more self-aware so they know what
their personal stresses are, how to manage them, how to identify them…(…) I suppose that’s
actually resilience isn’t it, it probably makes people feel more resilient because they’re more
aware of their limits.” [FG 2]
Control. Control over how much, where, and when they worked was seen as a positive strategy that
some GPs (mostly locums) used to prevent burnout. Many had chosen this manner of work specifically
to prevent them from burning out. Or it was chosen as a way forward to protect their wellbeing after
previously working full-time and suffering from burnout or depression.
Despite the positive changes that could be implemented within practices at a team or individual level, it
was evident that system-level changes are needed to have a larger impact on GPs’ work environment
and their wellbeing. The need for more Support, a Reduction in pressures, and an Increase in
resources, was discussed.
Support. Participants voiced the need for support from the government, their patients, the healthcare
organization as a whole, and the wider public and press through a reduction in negative media
portrayal. Additionally, a need for support from other services was discussed, for example from social
services, to reduce the workload falling to primary care related to care-related and social problems.
However this may be an issue with (a lack of) funding and access also within those organizations.
“F1: But wider support about if it’s an over the counter medication that you can buy from the
chemist please don’t request it from your doctor.” [FG3]
Reduction in pressure. Participants stated the need for a reduction in the tasks that decrease their time
that should be spent on direct patient care, such as; administrative work, quality assessment exercises,
additional work pushed onto them from secondary care.
“F1: they [secondary care] treat us like um -
F3: - yeah like can you recheck this and do that and -
F1: - they give us lots of menial, not menial tasks but things that they should be doing
themselves they’re pushing onto us all, so if they stopped doing that…” [FG5]
Increase in resources. Increasing resources for primary care was seen as an ideal solution that would
help to improve all the previous factors mentioned, such as reducing pressures and enabling time for
breaks. Ideally, having more GPs and funding to pay for more administrative staff would improve the
wellbeing of the GPs and also the quality of care by enabling GPs to offer longer appointments.
Increasing funding in other sectors (such as social care and mental healthcare) would also reduce the
added pressure currently within primary care.
“F1: So your options are you could increase funding in general practice back to the 11% it
should be at, which would be a 3 or 4% rise, and that additional resource would pay for
either more doctors or more staff within practices to do the things actually you don’t need a
doctor to do, and free up the doctors to then treat patients (...) it’s better for the doctors but
it’s better for the patients as well” [FG3]
Additional quotes for each theme and sub-theme can be found in the supplementary files (tables 2-5)
Five focus groups of GPs discussed issues that they perceived contributed to their wellbeing and levels
of burnout. They also considered possible strategies to improve wellbeing and prevent burnout. Their
responses fell under two main themes; those that were internal to the individual and practice, and those
that were external to themselves and their practice and therefore perceived to be outside of their direct
control. Internal influencers of wellbeing mainly consisted of having good team support, variation
within the job, job control, and unmanageable workloads. Individual and practice strategies to improve
wellbeing and prevent burnout tied in with these. In particular, participants noted strategies to look
after their physical needs (e.g. exercising), to have control (e.g. through choosing to locum), having
breaks, offering support, and psychological strategies such as increasing their self-awareness. External
influencers of wellbeing were framed in negative terms and comprised perceived increases in pressure
and workload, increasing patient expectations and complaints, lack of support from multiple sources,
and a perceived negative portrayal of general practice. External changes to improve wellbeing also
drew a parallel with these. Increases in support from the public, patients, media, and the government,
reduction in pressures, and increases in resources (e.g. funding) were stated as the three main external
changes that would be needed to improve wellbeing. It is important to note that control was seen as an
important contributor to wellbeing and yet the changes most likely to have a big impact in improving
all GPs’ wellbeing were mainly things outside of their control, suggesting a state of helplessness and
vulnerability to burnout with primary care physicians.
There were no obvious differences between or within groups based on job role, gender, or
number of years working as a GP. The only difference was in the language used: focus groups with
locum workers were more willing to discuss personal experiences of poor wellbeing or burnout,
whereas groups run with colleagues in the same practices spoke about more general workplace
contributors to stress, with fewer participants sharing their personal experiences of burnout or
depression. This is unsurprising given the potential stigma attached to discussing personal mental
health issues in front of colleagues. However this could also be explained by their current roles, as
many of the locum workers had chosen that line of work in a concerted effort to prevent burnout, or as
a way to improve their wellbeing after experiencing burnout/poor wellbeing when previously working
Similar contributors to wellbeing have previously been reported across various countries, including
America, Canada, and the UK 10,20,26,27. Some of these factors have also been cited as reasons why UK
GPs have left general practice in recent years28. Our study complements their findings, giving further
evidence for the lack of support within primary care in the UK, showing that these issues are
widespread and geographically generalizable. Furthermore, our study extends these findings by shifting
the focus away from strategies to deal specifically with workload, and instead offering practical
recommendations for individuals and practices to implement in the workplace to prevent burnout and
improve wellbeing generally. Additionally, our findings put forward system-level changes that are
needed to improve working conditions.
Improving self-awareness of personal stressors and signs of stress was a strategy suggested by our
participants. This has been successfully trialed within healthcare staff, through mindfulness training
courses, as an effective way to reduce burnout 29,30. The GPs also discussed the need for more self-
awareness and stress management coaching from their education providers during early stages of
professional training. This could encourage practitioner awareness of burnout whilst simultaneously
encouraging a wider, organizational understanding. Additionally, participants suggested various
strategies to foster peer-support. Balint groups (a group of clinicians/doctors who regularly meet to
discuss their difficult patient cases in a safe and supportive environment), could be one way of
increasing both peer-support whilst also increasing competence, and are used by some physicians as a
means to prevent burnout31. The primary novel strategy suggested by the participants of this study, was
the need for regular coffee/lunch breaks. These were believed to help to improve both physical and
psychological wellbeing, whilst also fostering a better team culture.
There are some practical strategies that individuals and practices can implement to reduce burnout,
such as introducing compulsory coffee breaks, and mentoring/buddying systems. However, it is evident
that system level changes may also be valuable. These could include training future GPs and
organizations to be aware of the signs of burnout and evaluating the impact this has on workforce
wellbeing. The changes that are likely to have the biggest impact on wellbeing however, such as
increases in funding, resources, and staff, are those that are the most challenging to implement.
Strengths and limitations
All participants were working within UK general practice, which challenges the representativeness and
generalizability of the sample and results. However many of the themes discussed were of international
relevance, particularly regarding the need for increases in support, resources, and breaks. The primary
strength of this study is the practical and feasible strategies that could be implemented within practices
immediately to improve workplace wellbeing in the interim before organizational change can be
GPs identified both practice-level and organizational-level factors that influenced their wellbeing. They
suggested that the best, feasible way to reduce the negative impact of these factors on their wellbeing is
through daily breaks. However, external changes were deemed vital to provide increases in resources to
allow for more administrative staff, GPs, and time for patient contact, as well as an increase in support
from various sources. These factors all merit further consideration by researchers, physicians,
healthcare organizations, and policy makers worldwide. Failure to do so may result in the primary care
workforce becoming even more burnt-out, depressed, and a subsequent increase in sick leave and early
This study received ethical approval from the School of Psychology, University of Leeds Ethics
Committee (ref #15-0075 accepted on 06/03/15) and Health Research Authority R&D approval (IRAS
This project forms part of a PhD that is part-funded by an NIHR grant. This paper presents independent
research by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health
Research and Care Yorkshire and Humber (NIHR CLAHRC YH). www.clahrc-yh.nir.ac.uk. The views
and opinions expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the
Department of Health.
We gratefully thank all the GPs who gave up their time to participate in this study.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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