Monday 13 June 2016

The meaning of work

They were standing in the hallway of the hospital, swapping work stories. 
He said: "I've had years where I earned $80,000, and I've had years where I only earned $30,000. And you know what? In the end, it didn't make a difference. I didn't save a penny more during those years where I earned more."
A patient lying in a stretcher, waiting for a procedure, piped up. "I agree. I worked so much overtime in my life, and it's not worth it. Don't do it."

I was standing some distance away, first only half listening, but the topic caught my attention. I had to talk to these guys. I walked over, smiling at the patient and then focusing my attention on my co-worker.
"So, you don't think working extra shifts makes a difference? What if you need more money?"
"You work more, you spend more", he said simply. "Spend the time with your loved ones, it's more important."


That's the thing about working in a hospital: Lots of the people there have received a few hard knocks from life. They have gained the hard-earned benefit of hindsight, and we can learn from them, if we choose to. Nothing will cut through the bullshit and noise of what we consider "problems" like becoming ill. "The healthy person has many wishes;  the sick one only one." Isn't that the truth. 

There's an interesting contradiction when it comes to the concept of work. When we grow up, all we hear from parents and teachers is that we have to work hard. If you want to become good at anything, you have to put the work in. 
How come then, that people on the other end, the ones closer to the end of their life than the beginning, will tell you you shouldn't work too much? 

I've thought about it a lot, and I think I've figured out what the distinction is. 
To me, there are two different kinds of work: The one that's fun, and the one that isn't. 
The fun kind is something you are passionate about. If you love something, you won't mind working hard on it. It could be anything: cooking, playing an instrument, gardening, being a surgeon, writing, maybe even cleaning (I hear there are people who enjoy it? it's impossible to imagine for me, but we are all unique little snowflakes). 

Then there is the other kind of work: The job we have to do, because a) we need to earn money, b) it needs to be done (housework jumps to mind), or c) we believe it's our responsibility as adults to do it (i.e. have conversations we don't want to have with people we don't really care for - that's a lot of work). 
If you decide to work extra in a job you don't love, you will solely do it for the benefit of extra cash. You will also probably feel like you deserve a special treat for all that extra work, and buy yourself a little present.
Those kind of jobs/overtime hours are the ones that aren't worth it. They keep you away from the people you love, they make you feel resentful and stressed, and in the end, the extra cash is being spent on stuff we don't need, just to make ourselves feel better.   

It's so easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of work, obligations, appointments, and a never-ending to-do-list. Weeks, months, years can go by in a flash, until one day we have to stop - due to illness, or a family tragedy, or the sudden realization that we don't get any younger - wondering what happened to all those years. What did we work so hard for? Was it worth it?

Of course, most of us don't have the option of saying "work is a waste of my time and making me unhappy, so I quit". We have to work to earn a living, but besides that, we work to feel needed, productive, and satisfied. Ideally, we would also like to make a difference, leave the world a better place than what we found, even if it is just in the most minuscule way.

What to do?

The secret is figuring out a way to make the job you have into something rewarding.
(Unless it's completely unsalvageable. If it is, you better quit and do something else.)

Lately, I find I have to remind myself again of the reasons why I chose my career.
You could say that I have become disenchanted by it.
There is a real danger of job dissatisfaction, and I really, really want to avoid that.
Because ultimately, I have always been proud of my career in health care. After all, isn't helping people a noble profession?

Let's review the facts of why I chose my job, shall we?

It was for job security, sure.
The benefits and pension crossed my mind as well.
But ultimately, I thought it wouldn't be a life wasted if I did something that contributed to other people's well-being.

And I have paid tribute to the fact that I love my job: At one point, I was grateful for my work family.

So, what happened?

I'm not really sure. There are tons of changes at work: Beloved co-workers have left, my beloved 4-on/4-off rotation changed (due to my own choosing, but still), and the politics of the workplace have overshadowed our real purpose. I desperately try to re-capture the love of my job I previously possessed.
I know it's in my power to make my job what I want it to be again. The actual work hasn't changed; just the noise around it. My task now is to tune out the noise, and focus on the work again.

Learning from the wisdom of the elderly, and the insight about life from the sick.

Revelling in the amazing feeling of being part of a team that helps another human being.

The bantering amongst colleagues.

The love, appreciation, and sharp wit of our patients.

I'm not disenchanted by that.

You know what else I just remembered?

A note that a mammography patient left with us last year. I don't think I shared it with you before, but I will do so now:

“I’m writing to thank you for the service you provide and the caring and kindness you show to patients. 
In late May of this year I had a routine mammogram in your clinic. After a second mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have since had surgery to remove the cancer and am preparing for radiation therapy. The outlook for my health is positive, and I will be well again. 
You do such great work – please know how much you are appreciated.”  

That's why I go to work every day.

And it's worth it.

I will try to remember that.


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