Career planning for health professionals – how coaching can help


Question: I’m really struggling at work at the moment. I’m unhappy and I’m not sure if I’m in the right specialty and having trouble deciding whether I should switch or stay where I am. This question keeps gnawing at me and I can’t work out what to do. I just don’t know how to get a sense of control. How can coaching help me? 

Answer: Dear Dr,

Thanks so much for reaching out to me. This is a great question and I’m glad you’ve asked.

Firstly, I’d like to reassure you that you are not alone. Every week I get inquiries from doctors with similar questions. This is really important to sort out, because unhappiness at work can be a significant source of stress. And this can affect your wellbeing, contribute to burnout and ultimately affect the wellbeing of your patients [1,2]. For that reason alone, it’s important to feel happier at work.  So it’s critical to do something about it.

Now onto your question.

Your career is really about your relationship to work. And like any relationship, to function well and meet your needs – your career needs to be nurtured. Healthy relationships rarely happen all by themselves without a long term investment of effort and time – neither do healthy careers. And just as unhealthy relationships can cause harm – so can unhealthy careers.

In medical careers we commit to long, rigorous and expensive training pathways at a relatively young age. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance [3] means it’s very difficult to admit we may not be happy. It’s hard to admit that such a big investment might not be the right thing after all. And it’s hard to make adjustments such as working less, or changing the focus of your work given the underlying fear that if we don’t keep forging ahead everything until now will have been a waste. And given there is a hidden assumption in medicine that seeking help is a sign of weakness, it can make asking for help difficult too.

Which is why I think you are smart to be thinking about seeking help. Far from being a sign of weakness, seeking help is an affirmation of the importance of your self, health and life. And if you could have sorted this out yourself, you surely would have by now. Something more is needed. And that’s where coaching can help.

Coaching is essentially a safe relationship free from judgement where you can consider who you really are (as a person not just as a doctor), where you would like be, and how you are going to get there.

So here are some of the things a coach can help you with:

Building a vision and finding a career direction

A coach can help  you talk things out and get greater clarity over the situation and your options.  For many people just talking through things is enough to find a career direction. Importantly, a coach will help you to consider all your options including:

  • Doing nothing and staying where you are – this often turns out to be a valuable solution requiring some adjustments to mindset and perspective
  • Tweaking a current position by adjusting hours or some other element of work in your control
  • Switching to another traditional medical pathway
  • Stepping into non-traditional work to a greater or lesser extent
  • Taking a break from work altogether

Importantly, to ensure this vision is internally motivating [4] for you and something you really want (rather than feeling you should do) coach will help you to evaluate all of these in light of things like your strengths, personality, family and life situation, financial needs, values and priorities for your life now and in the future.

Goal setting and action planning

Once you have a motivating and self-concordant vision, a coach can help you with goal setting and action planning [5]. This is very important to do carefully to ensure your chances of success and help you turn an inspiring idea into reality. It’s not always easy to stay on track with self-set goals as there often are not external pressures such as exams to keep motivation high. Coaching comes into it’s own in helping you stick to your plans.

Managing the process of change

Whatever the outcome of coaching there will inevitably be some sort of change to manage particularly relating to your beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, self-identity and behaviours. Generally speaking addressing these things requires a safe and supportive relationship. It’s simply hard to do this alone and hard (and often not even possible) to recognise and challenge the assumptions, cognitive biases and blind spots that make change hard to engage in and hard to sustain.

Friends, peers and mentors are all useful and recommended resources to engage with in any career change – particularly as you can tap into the voice of experience. Where a coach adds value is in the non-judgmental and non-hierarchical stance. Just as a bridge needs both support and tension to remain standing, a good coach will provide you with the right mix of support and challenge to enable you to uncover your hidden inner resources to find your own way. This is so important to help you feel a sense of autonomy and tapping into your unique purpose and meaning in work.

I hope this has answered some of your questions about coaching and why seeking help from an independent person can be so valuable.

Whether you choose to use a coach or not – I wish you all the very best in your career. And don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions.

With kind regards

Dr Jocelyn Lowinger

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