Amy is from Hobart in beautiful Tasmania. She left clinical medicine to start The Burnout Project which is now a successful business supporting professionals with burnout through a variety of methods including counselling, online programmes, public speaking and conference workshops. She has even written a book! Amy balances her work with raised her lovely brood of five and is a truly impressive human – we hope you enjoy her story.
Growing up, I never thought I would do medicine. I wanted to do clinical research. And then in my last year of school I panicked about being stuck in a lab and decided to do medicine instead. I called my dad, who is a rural GP; he spent the next hour trying to talk me out of it!
I quite enjoyed medical school and, when I was working, parts of general practice. I especially liked building relationships with patients and seeing the impact of care over time. But there were also parts I really hated and at that stage I had four young kids, no time to study for exams and didn’t have the money to sit them. I was working long hours, getting regular migraines and felt that I wasn’t enjoying my time with the kids. Things really came to my head when one of my patients committed suicide and my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was forced to think about what was actually important to me.
If I could do anything, what would it be?
I was two years into GP training at that point, so I took six months leave before making any final decisions. I started to look at other options and thinking about what I really wanted. If I could do anything, what would it be? Was there a part of my job that I really loved? I realised the thing I really enjoyed in general practice was the counselling aspect and it was something I struggled to get people further help with; especially if they didn’t have a formal diagnosis of depression or anxiety. I had a lot of patients who didn’t really fit a diagnosis but wanted help.
Over time this has evolved into focusing primarily on burnout; my clients are mainly doctors. I have a book, sell burnout support packages, have an online programme and do burnout counselling.
My role in a nutshell
My ‘average’ day
I will often get up and do some work before I start the day with the kids. I might be able to squeeze a meeting in the day at lunchtime and if it is something like a formal speaking event, I will work with my husband so he can take over for a couple of hours. I tend to be most productive in the evenings when the kids are in bed. The work I do includes counselling clients, preparing presentations or writing articles and working on content for my online programmes.
My experience of ‘going beyond’
It has been a quite a journey! I always thought that a medical degree only trains you to be a doctor and we spend so much time in medicine being told how much we don’t know. Initially, I felt like if I wanted to do something else I would have to go right hack to the start and do another degree to get somewhere. Over time, I realised that actually I do have skills that are very transferable. It is about having the confidence to say, actually I do have skills and something to offer now without a fellowship or more letters after my name.
It has been a quite a journey!
At the time when I was thinking about leaving clinical medicine, there just wasn’t anything out there. I found it really hard. And then Creative Careers in Medicine started - going to their conferences and meeting other people in the same boat was really nice. Now you guys coming at this with a different angle which is really exciting!
Reactions from others when you decided to pursue a non-clinical path
I don’t think people knew how to react! To be honest, I didn’t really tell people for a long time and would often just say I was taking a break. Partly because at the beginning I didn’t really know what I was doing, I didn’t have a business name and hadn’t figured out what my work was going to look like. I was also struggling with the concept of not doing any clinical work. You know, can I still call myself a doctor?
I have gotten much better over time at communicating what I do and my business. And I feel that people now recognise it as my job rather than a hobby; this was a perception at the start, especially as I was doing it all from home and a lot at weekends and evenings to juggle childcare!
Is there anything you wish you had known before you started?
Focus on that one area that makes you happy. You don’t need to try and do everything – being the perfect solution for one person means you have to be the wrong solution for several others. And that’s OK. If somebody thinks my services are too expensive or what I’m offering isn’t offering, that’s fine. There will be somebody else out there for them.
Focus on that one area that makes you happy
If someone wanted to pursue a similar role, how could they go about it?
I would always advise anyone thinking about leaving clinical medicine permanently to make sure you are making that decision for the right reasons and to keep your options open while as they work through it. Rather than leaving altogether, think about taking leave from a training programme or keeping your registration for a year. It gives you time to work out whether elements that are making you happy can be modified or not. There is a good chance that if you are really burnt out and don’t deal with it, you will dive into something else with all the same problems still there.
Skills & Experience
In terms of the business, to set something up on your own, you need to be very disciplined and organised. You also have to figure out what your skills are and if you don’t know how to do a particular thing, are you going to learn it or do you have the capacity to outsource it? For me, I started with no money so had to build skills in marketing and web design. But if you can, certain things are definitely worth investing in. In some cases, a carefully selected business coach can be really good to help keep you on track.
One of the biggest shifts for me was putting a price on my time. Going from working in the public health system to asking people to pay directly for your services takes some getting used to! You have to realise and become comfortable with the concept that your time has value.
One of the biggest shifts for me was putting a price on my time
Having a thick skin also helps - this is something I don’t naturally have but have improved over the years. In the beginning, any kind of negative feedback would really knock me but now I can take it far more constructively.
In terms of the counselling, my experience in GP was invaluable. I always had a special interest in counselling and focused as much of my CPD in that area as possible, in addition to a huge amount of self-directed study. I have also done a range of courses in things like positive psychology and mindfulness. Beyond that, I think a master’s in psychotherapy would be helpful.
If you could go back to your medical school graduation day and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Medicine can be the start of all sorts of different pathways. If you don't want to become a specialist or continue down the traditional medical pathway, that’s OK. There are other options, and it doesn't make you less of a person or less of a doctor to pursue them.