The experienced psychiatrist sitting opposite me in coaching said “You were the first person to ever ask me: What do you want?”
He went on to describe the profound impact this simple question had had on him. These four words had permitted him to discover, to imagine, to believe that he could actually meet some of his own needs once he knew what they were.
These four words had freed him from the straight jacket the culture of medicine had bound him in for 25 years and ultimately allowed him to practice medicine with renewed energy and focus. He felt happier, stronger and was enjoying his family and his work more than he had for two decades.
I work as a psychologist coach. My clients are doctors. This year I have been writing a book for them. The book has one simple message, expressed here directly to a doctor:
Learning the skills you need to look after yourself will make you a better doctor in every way.
Many doctors want me to justify this sentence by adding something about how coaching or other self-development activities will benefit the patient. The implied message is it’s only worth doing if the patient will benefit. The patients do benefit enormously when their doctor is well.
But I can’t help wonder why the notion of self-care is not valued more in its own right by doctors for the pure and simple reason that they are worth it. That it is worth being well for themselves and their own family.
When the doctor is well their performance is better, they enjoy their work more, their relationships are better and they work in their chosen career for longer because it is fulfilling.
Why is it so difficult then for doctors to prioritise their wellbeing when the benefits are many and clear?
It’s the system doctors tell me. As if the system has helped them forget or ignore their own human needs and desires. The culture of medicine is a powerful force. There are many structures and systems from the first day at medical school and throughout health, which encourage poor work practices like long hours. Competition is intense and ever-present, perfectionism is held in high esteem and asking for help or advice is punished, frowned upon.
Doctors frequently describe their training as brutal. In their work, doctors are repeatedly exposed to suffering in others. Isn’t it obvious that this kind of work always requires lots of self care in order to keep doing the work?
Yet few doctors prioritise time, space or energy for self-care. It is the first thing to go, there simply is no time doctors say.
Why isn’t self-care valued as the foundational practice for delivering medical care to others?
Why do people have to make excuses and justify their decision to go for a walk, see a coach, have supervision, take 10 minutes to practice mindfulness or 5 minutes to go to the bathroom or reduce their hours for a while?
Medicine is a special kind of environment, as a community we ask an extraordinary amount of our doctors. Doctors themselves regularly turn a blind eye to their colleagues’ suffering. Perhaps it is too much to be confronted with what practising medicine can do to humans.
Like it or not doctors are human just like the rest of us. It is human dilemmas and concerns that doctors bring to coaching. The three most common reasons doctors seek coaching with me are to:
- Create more work-life balance
- Build their confidence
- Work out what to do with the feedback they have been given. To understand what it means in terms of their behaviour
In coaching, doctors learn about themselves and make decisions for their lives, including their work.
Doctors who can meet these very human experiences effectively with interpersonal and self-awareness skills feel better, think more clearly, deliver better healthcare, lead teams more effectively and have sustainable careers in medicine. It is the development of their human skills that help them cope and advance medicine.
Well doctors provide optimum care
When doctors are overwhelmed, burnt out, demoralised, fatigued, they can only provide suboptimal care. Self-care is a bottom-line imperative for delivering excellent healthcare. It is a survival imperative for the humans delivering the care, not a luxury.
I have witnessed many doctors achieve balance, confidence, continued personal development and fantastic relationships working in health, once they decide to prioritise their own wellbeing.
Doctors, you have one precious life. No one else can take care of it for you. The system will not change while people refuse to look inside themselves and enquire with genuine curiosity and care. Ask yourself… What do I need?
Be well for yourself, everything else emanates from there.
Let the first stone you drop in the water be for yourself. Make time and space to take care of yourself as if your life depends on it. It does.
When you are well the patients will naturally receive better care, it’s a natural ripple effect of the first stone.
What are you willing to do in the service of your ongoing wellbeing in your one precious life?
The core of Sharee’s work is as an Executive Coach to doctors, leaders, and business owners. As an executive coach Sharee works with her clients to identify opportunities and map a course of action, learning new skills and building confidence. The coaching relationship is a place of confidential reflective thinking and experiences that facilitates creativity and growth. This process fosters insight, supports change and identifies assumptions that may be limiting progress. Coaching with Sharee is about building personal capacity for improved performance and greater well being. Learn more about how you could work with Sharee.