Empowering Interns

15 Feb 2021

Wellbeing at work


Dr Ira van der Steenstraten, a trained psychiatrist, psychotherapist and systems therapist, spoke with us about her work as the facilitator of our Wellbeing at Work program.

Now working as a life coach and mindfulness trainer, Dr van der Steenstraten connects with and empowers first-year medical interns across Queensland through the landmark Wellbeing at Work program that equips young doctors with the resilience and coping skills needed to survive and thrive in medicine.

The program includes two x 90-minute workshops in each location, with a week or two in between each session, but can be tailored to suit each hospital’s needs, and the needs of their interns.

“Firstly, it’s really important that we provide food. Taking care of yourself starts with making sure you have fuel to think.

"If we’re talking about wellbeing then we need to provide a good lunch so the interns can relax, listen, think and be in the moment,” Dr van der Steenstraten said.

Sessions have no more than 30 participants per group and are interactive with interns encouraged to share their experiences to help them understand they’re not alone.

“I go first and set the tone. I share some of my tougher experiences and how hard it was to ask for help. When I finally did, I realised there was support available and I was able to empower myself through those times. Showing that we all have our vulnerabilities makes it easier for interns to share their own experiences,” explained Dr van der Steenstraten.

Other senior hospital staff, including the medical education unit, doctors in charge of clinical training and medical administration, are also encouraged to lead the way by sharing their stories and tips before it’s over to the interns.

“Most people are better at giving help than asking for it. It’s incredibly supportive to know that others are going through the same things and by sharing their experiences they start to form a network of support too,” Dr van der Steenstraten said.

There are unfortunately some common issues and challenges faced by interns in Queensland that are regularly discussed in the sessions.

“As an intern you are at the bottom of a hierarchy at a new workplace and you rotate to a new team every couple of weeks. At times you’re treated badly and your valuable contribution to the hospital is sometimes not recognised.  It can be hard to speak up when you encounter systemic problems which can make it challenging to keep a healthy mindset,” shared Dr van der Steenstraten.

“Making sure the Wellbeing at Work program is presented by a peer with clinical experience who understands what they’re going through, shows the interns that we care, we see them and hear them. We understand from the feedback that this is an important part of what makes the program successful. We share tips and teach them practical skills to find healthier ways to deal with stressors in the workplace,” Dr van der Steenstraten explained.

Problems with bullying, communication, conflict situations, fatigue and rostering issues are regularly reported in the sessions which is consistent with the findings of the Resident Hospital Health Check an annual survey of junior doctors conducted by the AMA Queensland since 2017. 

“When there is very little time between receiving your roster and starting it, there’s no time for an intern that’s struggling, to get balance in their life and even to access help,” shared Dr van der Steenstraten.

“It can be incredibly hard for interns in regional Queensland to even find a GP. They’re new to the area and trying to find a GP, let alone one that’s able to see them after hours and worrying about their privacy can be really tough. The Medical Education Units are incredibly important in providing help in finding good GPs,” outlined Dr van der Steenstraten.

Working in a culture where staff not always take good care of themselves, such as not taking breaks, is also commonly reported but Dr van der Steenstraten says she encourages interns to  support each other to realise they can make a change.

“Our own behaviour is the only thing we can control and we need to remind ourselves and others to treat those around us with respect, courtesy and kindness, especially in a high-pressure environment. Ultimately, we all benefit from this, both staff and patients,” said Dr van der Steenstraten.

“We want all senior staff in hospitals to remember that interns are people and that should be appreciated, to be seen and acknowledged. And that isn’t a luxury, it’s essential. We have all been there and we need to remember that learning to be the best doctor we can be, is a process. 

“We also hope we’re creating the next wave of leaders who treat colleagues with respect and create healthy, positive work cultures that support young doctors as they start their medical careers,” shared Dr van der Steenstraten.

The Wellbeing at Work program is an Australian-first and you can read the full 2021 calendar to find a session at your hospital.

If you want your hospital to join the program, then contact AMA Queensland on (07) 3872 2222 or email wellbeing@amaq.com.au

Published: 15 Feb 2021