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Physician heal thyself

If friends or family have a career problem and ask me for help,  I refer them to a trusted colleague.   And when my husband was made redundant I knew I was the last person on the planet to be able to counsel him. In contrast to my approach with clients who had been made redundant (where I would stress the importance of not rushing into the first job on offer and instead using the redundancy as an invaluable opportunity to take stock), with my husband I just wanted to say “get a job – NOW.” Fortunately I had sufficient self-awareness to know that I wasn’t the right person and instead directed him to a colleague. She correctly identified that at heart he was an entrepreneur, and although I had misgivings, he set up his own company. That was nearly 20 years ago, and she was right.

Children are tricky to help too. Now that mine are all grown-up, I can review CVs or help with interview preparation. But when they were younger and sorting out what they wanted to do with their lives, I tried my hardest- and in the main succeeded, not to wade in with my own views. I have had too many clients over the years, who felt that their current career was the choice of their parents, rather than their own, and they regretted how it had taken them in a direction that they never wanted to follow. (Of course, following your parent’s choice doesn’t always work out badly,  but just as you tend to go to the doctor when you are feeling unwell, you tend to consult an occupational psychologist when you are not enjoying your work. In turn, typically my clients don’t tell me that they are thriving at work.)

So applying our professional skills to our nearest and dearest is hard. But what about helping ourselves?  Doctors are notoriously poor at looking after their own health. But maybe this isn’t so much a particular fault of doctors, but indicative of a more general tendency for people to be reluctant to apply to themselves, the advice that they would give to others in a professional capacity.

This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently as I navigate my way from Head of Careers at the Professional Support Unit to setting up CPD.  I have studied the literature on career change and I’ve helped hundreds of clients find their way through tricky career transitions.  Moreover my own change was one that I decided to make rather than a redundancy, and I am really excited at the prospect of setting up my own consultancy. Yet I have also found myself surprised by the emotional impact of the switch. Change can be unsettling – even if it has been sought out, and planned.

So why can’t I be my own client?

When I sit down and hear the career story of a client who is thinking about leaving medicine, I have no vested interest in them remaining in medicine, or not. My goal is to help them make a decision which, when they look back, they will feel was the right one. In this way, I bring impartiality to the situation that friends and family cannot. (And this is why I couldn’t help my husband).

But whereas it is possible to have no vested interest in the different options that a client is considering – it’s impossible to do the same for oneself. So the task of attempting to bring an element of objectivity to one’s own subjective experience is doomed to failure.  That’s why I have talked through my own career transition with another occupational psychologist, who can provide me with a degree of objectivity, that I cannot apply to myself.

And of course this applies to doctors too; doctors can no longer self-prescribe because they cannot be guaranteed to take an objective view on what course of treatment would be most appropriate. Which all goes to show that the old maxim has missed a trick or two. Rather than ‘Physician, heal thyself’ – it should be ‘Physician don’t heal thyself……..go and see your doctor’.


Posted by Caroline Elton



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Building on clinicians’ existing skills, the faculty development workshops can rapidly transform the effectiveness of future career conversations that they will have with trainees. Guidelines on when a trainee may be in career difficulty and need specialist careers support are also provided.


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