About three decades ago, I remember wishing a favorite attending a wonderful happy new year only to hear from him, “Yeah, that’s what they said last year.” I was taken aback by his response and learned later that his father had passed away in the year that just went by. Life in medical school was fast-paced and although I am generally a sensitive, thoughtful person, I am also the one to prioritize head over heart and motivate myself to move through challenges like most peers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” my friends and I would remind ourselves and each other during all those difficult times in school. A few years later, a senior resident whom everyone looked up to matched into a very prestigious fellowship program and just when everyone thought his life was made, he committed suicide. Everyone on campus was shaken by what happened, and I will never forget what the department chair said after gathering up everyone in the department including medical students like me. “The world may have many doctors, faculty members, residents, fellows, and medical students, but I want you to remember and I want you to promise me you will always remember that there is only one of each of you in this world. Your parents don’t have other children like you, your siblings do not have another sibling like you, your spouse or your child doesn’t have a spouse or parent like you. The world may really not have a doctor like you. Honor your life, honor your future, and honor the journey that brought you to where you are today. Medical school and residency are not the beginning nor should they be the end of your life. We do emphasize achievements, excellence, competition and winning, but there is a lot more to life than a career in medicine. Turn to each other for support and learn to recognize a colleague in need of support.” He closed with a secular prayer, which had a healing effect. The funny thing is – it’s the same room where our presentations were criticized and ripped apart, where there were heated debates peppered with sarcasm and one-upmanship, and where we were reminded once in a while that we may not make it as doctors in the big world if we didn’t shape up some more. While we couldn’t bring back the resident we lost, after that “communal affirmation and prayer,” we looked at other members of the department differently, more as fellow human beings. It’s one thing to have your small go-to group of friends for support; it’s another to view the entire group of people you work with as a source of support or as people you could potentially support.
The pursuit of a career continued. Having an emotional cushion of support from family and best friends is a huge blessing you can count on. I was able to work through intense years of two residencies, a fellowship, a year of grad school and my first decade as a healthcare epidemiologist. I remember a distinctly feel good moment during residency when there was a person walking around handing warm milk and freshly baked cookies to everyone making rounds that day and another person giving 5-minute back rubs to people who were post-call. But in general, I lived through my professional life not expecting or counting on emotional support in the workplace. I grew up believing that it’s not something you expect from your workplace. Until…personal tragedy struck in the form of sudden unexpected death of my husband. As the saying goes, “when you stand under a tree for long, you take the shade for granted.”
The emotional support I received from colleagues in the workplace as I returned to work was something that truly amazed and humbled me. I realized what a vacuum it was not to have a supportive adult to live with at home. Three years later, I now have far greater respect for colleagues who are good at emotional check-ins and offering words of support such as “Are you okay?” (and wait to hear your response), “How are you feeling?” “Please reach out if anything,” “Glad to see you coming back to work and being productive,” “Is there anything I can help with?” These are colleagues you may not have worked with, but those who see you at work and recognize emotional pain and do something about it. I now pay particular attention to these colleagues than I ever did before. I firmly believe that these are the kind of colleagues you want to work with. It doesn’t take away from anyone’s responsibilities and job duties, and no one is off the hook for achieving goals, meeting deadlines or the pursuit of excellence. I am not talking about emotional intelligence in the workplace either, which can have a dark, self-serving side. I am talking about a level of support in the workplace that lets a colleague know that you recognize what they went through and that you are there for them if they needed support. These are words and actions that may not get noticed or recognized let alone given academic credit. It requires a measure of emotional self-awareness in order to be able to offer this kind of support and also receive it gracefully and positively. We may not be able to measure this kind of support in the workplace quantitatively or prove through scientific experiments that workplaces with this kind of support have greater productivity, but I bear testimony to how effective this support has been in my own experience. It’s the kind of support that lets everyone achieve their personal best. Especially in competitive high-achieving work environments.