Forty years of dedicated service has seen North Shore local Professor Simon Willcock awarded a Member of the Order of Australia.

As a general practitioner (GP), Simon has spent his life serving the community and now his contributions to healthcare and tertiary education have been formally recognised. Last year, he was listed on the King’s birthday honour’s list and awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

Simon’s an academic, researcher and GP who has always had a special interest in people’s welfare and was pleased to receive the honour. “I was very happy and excited, but also very humbled,” he says. “I’ve seen many of my medical practitioner colleagues around the country acknowledged for the work they’ve done. And it was very gratifying and humbling to receive the award myself,” Simon says.

He juggles many roles. Simon is the clinical program head of primary and generalist care, wellbeing and diagnostics at MQ Health. He is also Sydney North Health Network’s deputy chair and board director.

Simon always had an interest in people and the community. To him, each person’s background and story are fundamental to their wellbeing.

“I think if you don’t understand or seek to understand the context, you’re really only finding out half of their story,” Simon explains.

“I’ve had to work with people who spend time in jail, who have had bad drugs addictions. And the more I get to know them, these are often people who have had very difficult lives. But inevitably, when you get to know somebody, everybody has a wonderful story. And if you can help them to reconnect with their story, you can often help them to overcome their current difficulties.”

His deep involvement with people made him realise the effect of the ‘highs and lows in medicine’ and how they were impacting his wellbeing and that of other practitioners.

His career as a GP started in 1983 at a rural practice in Inverell, in northern NSW. “Living in a rural community, you were attending motor vehicle accidents where people in the community were seriously injured and sometimes dying,” he recalls. “I think early on that the hardest part is to work out how you dealt with some of those highs and lows in medicine without letting it affect your own wellbeing.”

When he returned to Sydney, Simon started to observe how doctors coped with stress when treating patients, or when experiencing loss. “I did my PhD looking at how doctors deal with stress and how it affects their performance. Part of my research shows that burnout precedes other negative health outcomes like depression, anxiety or substance abuse,” he explains. “So if we can help doctors to recognise burnout, then they can put steps in place to redress it and hopefully make their careers more sustainable.

“I have to practice what I preach sometimes, but like all my colleagues who are very altruistic people, I can get myself into situations where I’m at risk for burnout, but at least I can recognise the signs and put strategies in place to manage it.

“You have to give yourself permission to take time out. That’s the most important thing. The second thing is what do you do to recharge your energies? And a lot of that relates to your own self-awareness.”

He also believes that having challenges in life will help people cope better with ageing and lead to a fulfilling life. “Don’t expect life to be perfect. Expect to be part of a community that will help you to deal with whatever life deals up to you. Having a community of support around you that’s friends, family, people who know you and care about you, allows you to take risks. It allows you to have failures in your life, to pick yourself up and still have a very fulfilling and productive life following your passion.”