This week on The Style Edit we’re talking all things health. We’ll be sharing content around mental and physical health, wellbeing tips and interviews with well-known health and fitness experts. To kickstart our health-focused week, we spoke to TSE’s resident doctor, Dr Doireann O’Leary about her career in medicine, overcoming burnout and what life as a social media influencer looks like for an esteemed doctor.
What drew you to medicine?
It was my science teacher initially who got me thinking about studying medicine. I loved science in school; I like knowing how things work. I was in an all girls school with a strong influence from nuns – it was strict. I didn’t get on with most teachers but the science teacher was different. He was very laissez-faire and I looked forward to his classes. So it started with him. He once showed us a photo of a child from Chernobyl. He suggested I do medicine to help people. He planted the seed and then it was very much my brother that encouraged me to pursue it.
What surprised you most about working in the industry?
That how you treat patients isn’t what you’re judged on. You’re judged on publishing research papers, doing extra degrees and courses. Being kind and nice to patients is never something you’re given credit for. You could be a mean person and clinically disastrous but get through every interview and be the star doctor because you’ve presented some papers…
What’s the hardest thing about working in medicine?
The hardest thing is when you can’t help someone, for whatever reason. Maybe there’s no cure. Maybe they don’t want to take your advice. It’s frustrating for them and for you. It’s a difficult point to come to. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.
Tell us about your experience with burnout
I burned out after 7 years working in the hospital system. Working 24-36 hour shifts and 100 hour weeks was the norm. I became chronically exhausted, physically and emotionally run down. I was socially isolated from friends and family. I had no time to see anyone. When I wasn’t at work I was sleeping. I asked a few times for reduced hours or a break but I was told that wasn’t an option. I was admitted to hospital 6 times in 5 years, for various reasons. I was once found by an ambulance crew collapsed in the car park. I was admitted with chronic dehydration, and eventually kidney stones. It came to a point that I just had to say I couldn’t keep going.
How has your attitude to medicine changed since experiencing that burnout?
I realise now that I have to protect myself and that you are always replaceable from a work point of view. If you are struggling, work can wait. I took some much needed time out and it didn’t have any adverse effect whatsoever on my career. I worried so much about it at the time. But I’ve kept going and it hasn’t been held against me in any way; medicine is more forgiving than I thought. I don’t feel like there’s any “black mark” on my CV.
“If you are struggling, work can wait.”
How did you handle going back to and falling back in love with medicine?
The patients! It’s always been the patients that got me through. The hospital and workplace politics can be so toxic at times but none of that comes in to play when you’re sitting with a patient talking about their life and how you can help. I really feel patients have been so kind to me over the years and have gotten me through some really hard times- professionally and personally. They think I’m helping them but they’ve helped me in many ways over the years.
With regards to your experience with burnout, tell us about some of the warning signs. Would you recognise them if burnout crept up on you again?
I don’t foresee it happening to me again. I burned out as a result of working 24-hour shifts and 100 hour weeks. There were times I was taking dangerous amounts of painkillers to numb the pain of my knees and feet as a result of staying up for 24 hours walking non-stop (often walking 22-30km whilst on call). There were times I just thought it would be easier if I did actually accidentally take an overdose and die; it would be easier than having to face my third 24-hour shift in a week. I told the Occupational Health Department in the hospital about this but it was brushed off and I was told go back to work. I begged for cut back hours. I was told it was an all or nothing situation. My concerns about my physical and psychological health were ignored repeatedly. Eventually, it was my mother who told me I had to stop. I’m glad she did. She saved me really.
Is there anything you actively do now to avoid burnout happening again?
Yes! I say no when I feel overwhelmed. And my husband watches out for me too to make sure I don’t take on too much. He knows when to tell me to cut back.
What advice would you give to young people a) to avoid burnout and b) who are currently experiencing burnout?
Just know that sometimes doing nothing is ok. Rest is good for you. Don’t strive to boast about how busy or stressful your job is. If you feel burned out just put your hand up and say you need a break. Don’t worry about “fallout” or what people will think. People are too busy worrying about themselves to worry about what’s going on with you; so it’s up to you to mind yourself.
“People are too busy worrying about themselves to worry about what’s going on with you; so it’s up to you to mind yourself.”
How did you get started with your blog and social media presence?
It all began when I started working in general practice. I was so happy! I felt like I was becoming a normal person. Someone who went home after work. Someone who got to sleep at night. I was so excited about this new lovely life I was getting to experience so I started sharing it online.
What were your goals in setting up your blog?
My goal is health promotion and to show that doctors are here to help. The narrative in the media is that doctors are annoyed about waiting lists, disgruntled about cutbacks etc. Don’t get me wrong – it is annoying. But I want to talk about the positive aspect of being a doctor and provide some balance.
“I want to talk about the positive aspect of being a doctor and provide some balance.”
At what point did you start gaining traction?
It was when I started I shared the Burnout blog that I started to gain traction. It hit a chord with people. I never expected it to get the attention that it did. I was contacted by The Irish Medical Organisation and The HSE about it; the president of The Irish Medical Council made a comment on it! I was shocked. It was nice of them to acknowledge it. I was asked by The IMO and HSE if I wanted it investigated further, I said no. I had begged them for years for help but nothing happened. So I just wanted to move on.
What excites you most about the social media industry?
I love that I can promote health and that I’m breaking the barrier between doctors and the public in some small way. So many followers message me saying they got the HPV vaccine or a smear because of me because I made it seem so normal and not daunting. I think people don’t see me as the typical scary doctor and I’ve made some people see that we’re just normal people exactly like them who want to help.
“I love that I can promote health and that I’m breaking the barrier between doctors and the public in some small way.”
What’s surprised you most about this industry?
Everything is FAST. I’ve turned down about a million things because I can’t do things last minute. I plan weeks in advance. My schedule is very predictable week to week. The last-minute nature of everything in media really amuses me, it’s so different from what I’m used to. I’m working on trying to be a bit more spontaneous!
Tell us about signing with Andrea Roche. How did that come about? What are your plans with that partnership?
I was starting to get asked to do a lot of things, support brands and host events etc. It got to a point that I was finding it hard to reply to everyone. A few agencies approached me but Andrea Roche was definitely the right fit for me. We have a few projects in the works and (one majorly exciting one) but it’s all very authentic. I won’t do anything that my heart isn’t in.
How do you stay organised and juggle all of your various projects?
I take an hour every morning to go through everything like that. I have a coffee and get through it first thing in the morning before work. It’s the time of day I work best.
Which traits do you feel have attributed to your success?
I don’t really consider myself “successful”. But I guess maybe just being honest, working hard and seeing things through. I don’t look for a quick fix ever. I look at the long game. Doing something quickly and sporadically for a quick fix won’t get results. Working at something over the course of a few years will mean you can really nurture what you’re working on.
“Doing something quickly and sporadically for a quick fix won’t get results. Working at something over the course of a few years will mean you can really nurture what you’re working on.”
Who inspires you?
My husband. He inspires me so much. He’s so hard working. So kind. So honest. Never puts himself first. He’s a wonderful husband and wonderful leader.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
You like being alone; that’s ok. Listen to your gut.
“You like being alone; that’s ok. Listen to your gut.”