"I'm taking a break, I lost three people to suicide in the past six months"

Doctor Katrina Sheikh opens up about burn-out within the NHS, building her routine, and how Huel brings a sense of order to her life

Hueligan Katrina Sheikh

You'd be hard pressed to find a job more mentally and physically taxing than a doctor. And in the last couple of years, you-know-what made an already difficult job near impossible.

Dr Katrina Sheikh is about to turn 37 and like most doctors, has an inner determination most of us normal folk will never achieve – no matter how many self help books we devour.

Having failed to get into medical school at her first attempt, she went on to study Bioscience at Kings College, London – still one of the most challenging courses in the country. It got her to where she wanted to go – a postgraduate course in medicine, and now after a decade of sweat and tears, a job as a consultant within the NHS.

Unfortunately, Katrina's father, a psychiatrist, passed away at just 52 and never got to see his daughter's move into the profession he held dear. "That's the only thing that I get annoyed at, because he saw me fail all my exams early on," says Katrina. "And now I'm a bloody consultant."

Coping with burn-out

It's been a slog. And yet despite all the hard graft, and the years of constantly pushing herself forward, Katrina now senses the need to take a half-step back.

Doctor Katrina Sheikh drinking Huel

"I'm having a break. I lost three people to suicide in the past six months, two colleagues and one friend."

Katrina's shift away follows a trend. NHS staff have been leaving the service at record rates – The Guardian reported that over 400 workers were leaving every week to restore their work-life balance in the wake of Covid.

"There's a presenteeism as a doctor. But you have to look after yourself, because if I'm not well enough to look after myself, how am I well enough to look after another one's relatives?"

Katrina will still be working within the NHS, albeit as a locum doctor, temporarily filling any rota gaps within hospitals and clinics.

"We've got lots of gaps in the rota because people are either burnt-out, they're tired, or they've actually had Covid, and now they have long Covid. Lots of people are leaving the NHS because they just want to do something different, because they've seen a lot over the two years. That's why I have made a choice – I will obviously still work in hospitals in locum – but I need a break. I want to be a consultant in a hospital for a long time, but right now, not for me." 

Building a routine

Right this minute, Katrina is still working full-time as a consultant. Her shift patterns can be irregular, a mix between the standard nine-to-five, as well as on-call days that run from 8am to 8pm.

There are also brutal 8pm to 8am night shifts to contend with, and Katrina's least favourite – the twilight shift, which runs from 2 pm to 10 pm.

"I hate those. I hate getting home at 10:30 every night, hungry, not knowing what to do or have for dinner. I used to just have ready meals where you're paying five quid for rubbish. I had a McDonald's at 11pm once. I'm never doing that again.

"And then Huel Mac & Cheeze came into my life."

Dr drinking Huel

Rather than wait until she is back home at almost midnight, Katrina can now eat Mac & Cheeze on her break at 7pm – when everyone else is tucking into their own dinners. She doesn't even have to think about it, helping keep her focus firmly on her patients and the task at hand.

Katrina prefers to eat something hot in the evening, but at lunch, in her day shifts, she'll turn to a Huel Ready-to-drink. It satisfies her hunger far better and for longer than a sandwich – which she'll usually have to resort to whenever she forgets her Huel.

"When you're on a ward round, and the ward round is starting at 9 and finishing at 2:30, some people do not have a break or go for lunch. They just power through, and then you finish the ward round exhausted and hungry.

"You have to utilise your time efficiently but with Huel I know I can drink that Huel in the office and come back so I don't have to wait in the canteen for a seat. Like clockwork – one o'clock, my Huel is opened."

Routine is a topic that regularly comes up when chatting with Katrina – a way for her to bring a sense of order in what is, by nature, a chaotic environment.

"Every day at work is different, but Huel is consistent."

Work hard, play hard

Whichever the shift then, every day will consist of a kale and spinach smoothie for her breakfast and the aforementioned Huel Ready-to-drink for lunch. As well as being convenient for work, it also means she doesn't have to worry as much about what she has for dinner.

"I had a massive pizza with buffalo mozzarella and a red wine on Monday. For the other two meals I'm not really fussed about where or what I have on a weekday. I never feel guilty in the evenings because I know my nutrition is taken care of elsewhere by Huel."

Katrina is also regimented with her workouts, which she'll either do at the gym when she finds the time or in her flat.

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The kettlebell is one of Katrina's go-to's, and she has recently started getting into skipping after becoming obsessed with the videos of Lauren Flyman, better known as Lauren Jumps, an Instagram star famous for her easy-to-follow skipping tutorials and mesmeric footwork.

It's a movement that suits Katrina well. There's serious skill involved in skipping rope – it requires a great deal of hard work and determination to truly nail. But there's also a playful and light side to Katrina's personality.

"You know how people are very different at work from home? Well, I'm exactly the same. My patients see me exactly like this. I laugh and joke. I mirror my patients. I don't change my character."

Mental health matters

Away from her highly tuned regime of work, exercise, and socialising, Katrina is also a keen painter, her flat littered with her own creations – some of which she has managed to sell via her social media. "I adore Jack Vettriano. I used to copy his work and paint myself into them".

Like exercise, Katrina paints for her mental health. Being conscious of your mental wellbeing is an important trait for someone with a high-pressure job like Katrina, and it has served her well.

It's also something we, as a wider society, should keep in mind. The mental health of those working within the NHS is hugely important, not least for the fact that these are the very people helping to look after our own health.

"Sometimes when you're short-staffed, people can get really grumpy," admits Katrina, "and they don't factor in that we are human as well."

Photographs: Rory Langdon-Down

Words: Richard Jones

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