CAREER HEALTH : What is it? Who has it?

by Stephen Rosen, PhD

What are the career differences and similarities between the following two physicians?

The Thoracic Surgeon

Dr. Oberon (not his real name) is a thoracic surgeon in his mid forties. He is highly conflicted about walking away from his career. He says he is very good at a career that is a source of self-esteem and immediate gratification.

He has written a screenplay (as yet unsold) to demonstrate his belief that hospital administrators are basically corrupt. He has published several dozen clinical/research journal articles. He has held five jobs in nine years, which seems excessive even to him. (The average is about two). He lives a life of great stress and long hours and is very unhappy as a surgeon. He says he wants to be his own boss, "to be God rather than to have God over me".

Almost all of his family members are physicians who consider medicine a "calling". He has difficulty dealing with the system and he says, "getting along with others due to the politics and moral stance of hospitals and managed care contracts". He says he has lost his altruistic ideals and feels "devalued". He has considered careers in medical broadcasting or communications, management consulting in health-care cost-containment, or finance. He feels that he has virtually no control since he cannot operate outside the confines of a hospital.

The Pediatrician-turned-MBA

Dr. Grant (not his real name) was trained in pediatrics, but went to medical school only because it seemed to offer the widest scope for all of his interests in literature, the arts, philosophy, public policy. During neo-natal training, he observed widespread use of expensive tertiary high technologies--which he thought was irresponsible, since his supervisors could have used high-technology to help prevent the conditions they were trying to correct.

Seeking a sub-specialty, he decided there were enough good specialists around, so he decided to scrutinize his career options very rigorously. For one to two hours a day, alone in his office, he wrote extensive notes on his intensely private career-choice reflections. While teaching pediatrics and practicing medicine he considered medical anthropology, social sciences and public health, but someone suggested he look into getting an MBA. He called a dozen or more MBAs to see what kind of person would be attracted to that specialty, why they were doing it, and what they planned to do with their MBA. Most seemed to be poised to do substantive useful work, clearly reasoned, and highly focused.

After getting the MBA he says, "I went from an individual practitioner, healer and caretaker interested in relating to patients--to having well-defined business relationships, legal responsibilities, negotiating, and board-room experiences. I felt I wanted to exercise extensions of my capabilities in renewal. This required me to de-emphasize my nurturing role as a physician, which I saw was a necessary loss, especially since I am uncomfortable if large aspects of myself are undeveloped." He transitioned into the medical cost-containment industry successfully, where he views his career as "an activity embedded in the flow of life."

Career Pathology

Which one demonstrates career well-being or health? Both are doing what they love. Dr. Oberon has serious career problems (if not severe "career pathology"), and Dr. Grant is doing what he believes is valuable by creating a positive social impact consistent with the exercise and enjoyment of his abilities.

What they do share are considerable skills and abilities They also exhibit two completely different facets of "career well-being", "career health", or "career well-ness"... a condition that underlies the situation-specific details of each one's career.

The Person Who Has The Disease--Or The Disease The Person Has?

Hippocrates said that it's more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease the person has. By the same token, it's more important to know what sort of person has a career than to know what sort of career a person has. Hippocrates was of course referring to the elements we need to produce and maintain physical and emotional health: hygiene, proper diet, a calm balanced mental state, good physical conditioning, a sound work and home environment, and harmony with whatever life forces pervade all of nature.

Career Health

Considered as a model for "career health", physical health offers familiar parallels and touchstones: the richness and complexity of anecdotal case histories; the application of statistics to make inferences from these to, to form diagnoses, to administer prevention and therapy. Both career and physical health depend upon many subtle and complex nuances, and underlying environmental factors. Both physical and career health benefit from preventive maintenance and exercise.

How Can We Measure Career Health?

By speaking to other "Dr. Oberons" and "Dr. Grants", we find that there are underlying conditions specific to career health--attitudes, beliefs, behaviors that are evident among people who are not only subjectively satisfied and fulfilled in their current career, but also in all of their previous careers. We call these individuals "career-transition champions".

Interviews with them reveal those attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors which define "career health", "career resilience", "career intelligence", "career versatility" among credentialed professionals. The result, a "Career Well-Being Inventory", distills the salient themes into a ten-minute paper-and-pencil exercise with which you can measure your own career well-being. You can obtain a free copy of this exercise (see below), and if you return your scored version in confidence, I will provide a brief interpretation and analysis.

Back to articles