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Wellbeing: Dr Zoe Williams on work anxiety after maternity leave

Like countless working mums, Dr Zoe Williams has been adapting to life post-maternity leave this summer. And like many others, she admits it’s had its challenges.

Dr Zoe Williams outside the Rovers Return pub on Coronation Street, next to a van featuring alcohol-free Heineken 0.0.
Dr Zoe Williams outside the Rovers Return pub on Coronation Street, next to a van featuring alcohol-free Heineken 0.0.

“We don’t have any support nearby, it’s me and my partner, so it’s very busy,” says the TV medic and GP, who is a resident doctor on ITV’s This Morning. “Nursery is eight ‘til six, but I’ve got to be at work for eight and I’m not getting out of there until seven – that’s been really quite stressful.”

She’s not complaining – just being honest – and it’s this down-to-earth realness that makes her so relatable on TV. Lancashire-born Williams – who now lives in South London with her partner, Stuart McKay, and welcomed their baby boy, Lisbon, in May 2021 – also has a strong sense of her needs when it comes to self-care.

“For me, it’s all about exercise,” says the 42-year-old. “My life is quite chaotic, no two days are the same, no two weeks are the same. I’m juggling looking after a baby, working, being a partner and looking after a house. I have suffered with anxiety in the past and chronic lower back pain, but if I exercise regularly, I’m able to keep those two things under control. My medicine is movement.”

As well as appearing on TV, Williams still works in the NHS. The end of her maternity leave coincided with what feels like a bit of a crunch point for GPs, with growing conversations around the unmanageable pressure they’ve been under. She admits “there is some anxiety” about all this.

“I’ve been very aware, and I’ve been hearing from colleagues about the stresses and strains of the job at the moment. The NHS is a broken system – the pandemic has put a strain on a system that’s already broken, and people who work at every level of the NHS have been under pressure, and patients at every level of their treatment are feeling the pressure,” Williams shares.

“[Often], the only person someone can access without needing an appointment in the post – if your cancer treatments have been delayed, or your surgery has been delayed – the only person you can take those frustrations out on is your GP. So GPs have had to absorb all of that, as well as the increased workload, because so many more people need to see their GPs.”

She understands the frustration for patients – “people are right to be angry” – but says “GPs have borne the brunt” of things. “I think everybody’s always a bit nervous when they return to work after maternity leave, but it is adding additional anxiety to it.”

What’s been her approach with navigating this?

“I don’t know – it’s something to think about,” she reflects. “How am I going to look after myself and make sure I’m the best doctor I can be, but also continue to be the best mum I can be?”

Not being too rigid helps. “When it comes to juggling everything, my rule is there is no rule. The key thing for me is to set my expectations for exercise as something that’s manageable,” says Williams.

“So I set myself the goal of doing 10 minutes every day – that’s my wellbeing, that bit of exercise – but that could be a walk, 10 minutes of stretching, 10 minutes of doing a little workout in the kitchen. Or it could be 10 minutes of just sitting by the water, which is something I find really calming.”

When she does have the time, she says: “I love to lift weights. That’s one of my favourite things to do, because of the way my body and brain feels afterwards, the chemicals that are released. You’ve got your happy hormone, serotonin, your reward hormone, dopamine, you’ve got endorphins that alleviate pain and make you feel good, and you’ve got adrenaline that helps improve focus and concentration. So there’s all of that going on, but to me, it’s a real self-esteem kick. If I’ve worked my muscles and lifted something heavy, I feel good about myself, I feel proud of myself.”

Williams tries to apply mindfulness to drinking too. “I think there’s been a shift from accepting that alcohol is part of our culture and social lives – people are starting to think about that a little more. Thinking, how does that serve me? Do I really want to drink here, or is it just me going along with the culture we have?

“Alcohol dependency runs in my family. I know at times in my life, like most of us, I’ve drunk more than is healthy and perhaps more than I should, but I guess I’ve always been somewhat of a mindful drinker, because it’s something I know I have to keep an eye on, and make sure it doesn’t get out of control. Because when it comes to drinking – and we’ve definitely seen this in the pandemic – alcohol dependency can happen to absolutely anyone.”

While some might choose to avoid alcohol altogether, for many it’s about bringing more awareness to how and why they’re drinking, and making it OK to make a conscious choice – rather than just drinking “because it’s the social norm” or saying yes to a pint “on autopilot”.

Williams acknowledges there’s traditionally been “real stigma” attached to saying you’re not drinking. “We all want to know why, people ask questions, and we can be quite critical about why somebody chooses not to [drink]. It’s time for that to change, for it to feel just as normal for someone to be ordering a low-alcohol or alcohol-free drink.”

That’s why she’s teamed up on a campaign with Heineken and ITV soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Viewers may have noticed the soaps’ fictional pubs – the Rovers Return and The Woolpack – have started serving Heineken 0.0 on draught.

With around 11 million viewers tuning in daily to watch these shows, it’s a big step in the mindful drinking movement – and Williams suggests it’s great people can have booze-free options, without having to miss out on socialising. “Because going to the pub, socialising with other people – it’s so important for our mental health, it’s a positive thing to do.”

Should people talk to their doctor if they’re concerned about their drinking? “Absolutely,” says Williams – and you don’t have to fit the “preconceived idea that somebody struggling with alcoholism is drinking every day, first thing in the morning”, she notes.

“If you feel you’re losing control, it’s better to reach out and ask for help sooner than later. The sooner you get support, the quicker you can gain that control back.”

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