When Supervisors Encourage Unwellness

Allow me to just rant about this AGAIN. Different story, same outcome. (I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but I wanted to be sure that I passed my exams first. Hah.)

A few weeks ago I rotated through Orthopaedics. Now, even though the Musculoskeletal System was my biggest nemesis during our theory rotations, I was really looking forward to Ortho. I wanted to take the metaphorical bull by the horns.  We had a lot of ward rounds scheduled with different consultants to optimise our learning in all the different sub-specialties.

At our first contact session with each consultant, they would take it upon themselves to give us a little “advice”. I really liked this. A lot of it focused on must-know topics for ortho, and a lot of them focused on general wellness, or tips for our future as junior doctors.

But one consultant had the following to say at the end of our first ward round with him. This was in our first week of Ortho so, as you can imagine, our theory was not up to scratch.

“It’s time to work now. Study more, sleep less. Start drinking really strong coffee. Next year you will chronically be sleep-deprived, and you may as well learn to cope with it now.”

Some of my colleagues giggled sheepishly, and he looked real dang proud of the talking-to that he had given us. I stood with my mouth half-open, and the only reason I didn’t say something that probably would have gotten me a disciplinary hearing or a bad ward mark was because I was dumbstruck.

Because, EXCUSE ME?!

I want to know if a doctor – this one or ANYone – would EVER give that kind of advice to a patient? “Mmmmh, yeees, yes, I see, yes, sleep is verrrry important for your biopsychosocial wellness, but I absolutely agree that it is in the best interests of your future career to work yourself half to death and become caffeine-dependent. Oh, THAT get’s my doctor-approved stamp RIGHT THERE!”

Well hell no, I would think such a doctor would be accused of negligence.

For that matter, I wonder if a doctor would ever give their child this advice? “No honey, I understand that you are exhausted and want to have dinner with us as a family tonight, but it is absolutely imperative that you study until you qualify for burnout so here is some extra strong coffee, now go study!”

I’m still so mad about this. Because what I’m trying to illustrate above is that no doctor in his right mind would advocate our kind of lifestyle to his patients or his children, so why do they try to impress it on medical students?

A few weeks later, thirty minutes before my final surgery exam, I heard a supervising doctor remark to one student, “Well, sleep is always good, but not the night before your exam.”

Say what? Say WHAT?!

So yes, sure, I’ve gone without sleep at times. And more often than not I’ve kicked myself, because my brain was mush. And yes, I’ve made unhealthy choices. But for a supervisor to encourage those kinds of choices, as if it is something to be proud of, as if we are somehow above the need for healthy lifestyles? That is not on.

I’m done, guys. I just cannot with this absolute ridiculosity (not a word, I admit) of these people.

I have to give this one some thought though.


  1. Great article! I remember those days (though I did not endure as long as you!)

    After 7 years of undergrad and some certificates and specializations, but exhaustion definitely took a toll on me; both mentally and physically! One of my largest concerns was to always get enough rest before game days (exams, lab demos, presentations, proposals, etc), yet sadly, I barely followed through on this. And if only I partied more, maybe I could have studied more and gotten my rest 😉

    Best of luck to you. Final year? Woohoo! You can do it!!

    1. Thank you so much 🙂

  2. BadGluteus says:

    Come final year and I am all about sleeping. I have given up on studying all night and give exam the other day because may be my neurotransmitters are dearer to me than these stupid grades. Funny thing is I score better with this approach. I know everyone would.

    1. Exactly that. I definitely would not have gotten through my exams without sleep, and I had a few friends who had to defer exams because they became completely burnt out from lack of sleep.

  3. Tara says:

    I think about this often, because it just doesn’t seem right that the medical profession does this. I feel like med students and residents are overworked in an unhealthy way and the culture glorifies this. It’s almost like hazing into the profession. However, I am not a doctor (and my roommate is an ER resident, so he has a fairly fixed 40-50 hr/week schedule), so I don’t know the finer points of the culture. But good for you for recognizing that it is unhealthy, and I hope you find ways to take care of yourself physically and emotionally!

    1. Thank you for your empathy! It’s really important that non-medics share this view too, because I think some medics try to live up to a sort of “hero-worship” they think they are subjected to.

  4. crankygiraffe says:

    I find here that the younger supervisors seem more “in touch” with wellness that the older ones. They want what we want… But it still doesn’t mean we always get it. This is a horrible lifestyle we have!

    1. That’s interesting. I’ve found a lot of younger supervisors to be more harsh at times and I’m not sure if it is because they want to emphasise their superiority or what. At least, that was what I experienced in the surgical blocks. Maybe I’ll have a different experience with the medical ones!

  5. harveylisam says:

    Totally agree, and I agree with crankygiraffe. I also think that you need to really look out for your own interests, since it seems no one else is going to look out for you!

    1. Yep, that’s something I’ve realised this year. For the first time this year I have left when my shift is over instead of waiting to be told that I can go, because I know that many doctors just won’t let me go until they go. Surprisingly I haven’t gotten into trouble for it, and it seems many of my colleagues are doing the same.

  6. Sandra Nguy says:

    Well put! And not only is it unhealthy for us personally, but it puts our patients at risk too!

    1. That’s the big problem. And if our patients get hurt we will be the ones accountable… and saying that we had been working for too long will not be an acceptable excuse.

  7. koharjones says:

    Here’s to sleep! And living the healthy lifestyles we promote!
    And we wonder why we have problems with physician burnout and suicide…

    1. My thoughts exactly! It’s kinda obvious, isn’t it…

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