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Supporting workforce health and wellbeing: Bodysystem

Posted on December 22, 2023

(L-R Nicholas Cannell, Kellie Wilkie and Carmen Woodmansee)

According to Beyond Blue, healthcare workers exhibit higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation when compared to the general population.

And the RACGP’s latest General Practice: Health of the Nation report says 71% of GPs experienced feelings of burnout in 2023.

We have profiled two Tasmanian primary care practices – Bodysystem physiotherapy (below) and John Street Medical (here) – who are making a conscious and significant effort to look after the health and wellbeing of their workforce – with great results for both staff and patients.

When Kellie Wilkie was 23, she graduated from her physiotherapy studies as dux of her entire university.

Her passion for competitive swimming drove her to seek a career as a sports physio – she started working in private practice and had dreams of joining a medical support team for the Olympics.

But two years later, she was applying for a job as a checkout operator at Woollies.

“I found working in general private practice to be really tough as a new graduate – seeing people over short time periods, working many hours a week, working weekends, working until late at night – I suffered from burnout pretty quickly,” Kellie says.

“I actually gave up the profession altogether for a period of time, thinking it wasn’t for me.

“I applied for a job at Woollies, thinking being a checkout chick would be very simple. You don’t take any work home at night.”

Kellie’s early career experience drove her to set up her own practice, which evolved into Bodysystem physiotherapy and rehabilitation, in Hobart at the tender age of 25. And it’s a business that is unapologetically practitioner-focussed.

After Kellie had had a couple of years away from the health sector, her Dad encouraged her to consider how she might be able to “enjoy the profession in terms of not working such crazy long hours and not seeing as many people per hour”.

“I loved studying physiotherapy, and my Dad said: ‘Why would you give this up after one go?’,” she says.

“And that’s how the conversation began around starting my own business, what it might look like, and how I thought that primary health care – not just the place I was working at, but primary health care more broadly – made it very difficult to be happy and healthy and deliver great services.”

Kellie’s business model featured an initial full-hour consultation with clients – including time for associated paperwork – and 30-minute follow-up appointments.

She worked from 8.30am until 6pm, gave herself a full one-hour lunch break, and didn’t work on weekends.

The first person Kellie employed was an experienced physiotherapist who was looking for a better work-life balance.

“He had heard of the way I was practising and that appealed to him, so he came and worked with me – and he provided me with support and education as a new graduate,” she says.

“Steadily, more people approached me with regards to wanting to work in that way, because they were getting jaded working in private practice and primary health care.

“And I’ve been able to offer a job in a very similar way to how I’ve employed myself – I think there’s time to be able to keep myself happy and healthy and provide great quality health care, but also not burn out.”

Kellie, mum to twin boys, and her Bodysystem business partner Fiona Hamilton now employ 15 practitioners who are supported by an admin team of six people.

“I really have been very fortunate to have never been wanting for staff, and that’s quite unusual in Tasmania because we haven’t had a physiotherapy school here until recently,” Kellie says.

“We find that people both in Tasmania and outside of Tasmania hear about the parameters that we employ people under, and the education that we give, and we have people seeking employment with us all the time.

“I firmly believe that’s because we’re providing an environment where people can see sustainable employment, long term, in a primary healthcare setting.”

Sports and exercise physiotherapist Nicholas Cannell first met Kellie as a patient when he was a keen competitive swimmer, and joined the Bodysystem team in 2021 as an employee.

“Both Kellie and Fiona, our two managing directors, have been so supportive in helping both myself and our team grow,” Nicholas says.

“It’s a truly special place to work and honestly, it’s like being a part of a big family, where you can be challenged, supported and free to be yourself.

“Everyone talks about work-life balance but it is actually a priority here, despite everyone’s desire to be better practitioners.”

Physiotherapist Carmen Woodmansee knew exactly where she wanted to work when she returned to Tasmania in early 2021 after a few years working interstate.

“The last place that I worked was not owned by a healthcare professional and there was often tension between what they wanted versus what the practitioners needed to provide quality care,” Carmen says.

“There was such an importance put on the bottom line and when you achieved their targets, they just asked for more.

“Working in a business run by people who know the demands of the job means that we are given the time and resources to provide quality care while also being supported to look after our own wellbeing.

“I have never had a discussion about the bottom line since working here and I know that I am providing the best care that I have in my career.”

And Kellie says happy and healthy practitioners leads to happy and healthy clients.

“That longer initial consult really sets people up for success in the first instance but also, if you’re coming in to see someone that’s not under stress and is in a very good mental health state, that high-value care is there right from the outset,” she says.

“So even though we’ve set the practice up around practitioners first – not patients first – it ends up being patients first if we look after the practitioners.”

Kellie has also realised her dream of getting to the Olympics – about 10 years into her career she was asked to travel with the Australian rowing team, and she went to the London games in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

She credits her own ‘support team’ – including her husband, parents, parents-in-law and early mentors Paul Shinkfield and David Humphries – with contributing to her success. “I’m a big believer in teams – both in the workplace and from a family point of view. We don’t always get it right, but we’re trying to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to develop and grow in the direction that they want to.”

Bodysystem’s staff-centred practices

  • Longer initial consultations: “If you can provide a longer treatment time for practitioners and for patients, then you’ve got staff that are willing to work more hours and staff that are willing to be there for longer.”
  • A one-hour lunch break: “Everyone has a one-hour lunch at the same time so we’ve got time to chat, time to feel like a team.”
  • No weekend work: “We’re firm believers that no-one’s going to die of a musculoskeletal injury – a lot of people will come on the weekend if you open then but actually, we all want to spend weekends with our families.”
  • Education opportunities: “We’re wanting to provide the best quality health care that we possibly can – and education sessions during work hours is also downtime when you’re not face-to-face with patients.”
  • Mentoring: “Our experienced physiotherapists have two half-days a week as leadership time when less experienced practitioners can come and talk to them. We also provide a formal mentoring system until graduates are about seven years out of uni.”
  • Mental health support: “Since COVID we’ve really increased the amount of support and education around mental health in the workplace – for instance SPEAK UP Stay ChatTY have a fabulous workplace education talk and supporting resources.”
  • Unlimited annual leave: “Allowing people to take unpaid leave to go off and have a really big break occasionally – they come back more refreshed, happy, healthy people, and that’s got to be great for your workplace.”

This story features in Issue 17 of our Primary Health Matters magazine. Click here to read the rest of the issue.