You hear this phrase a lot; being a doctor is “just a job”, but funnily enough in widely different contexts. On the one hand, the “higher calling” of medicine is derided by some, who insist it’s “just a job” like any other. On the other, doctors under extreme pressure need to know sometimes that their work is “a job”, it should stay compartmentalised and allow them a life outside the hospital or surgery, to balance their own mental health against their working lives.
Which is it?
I don’t think anyone who has working in any emergency setting with human beings would accept the derogatory label of “just a job”, whether that job is doctor, nurse, physiotherapist, pharmacist, fireman, policeman, or paramedic. The normal course of a human life is long periods of normality and stability, punctuated by “Life” with a capital L; births, deaths, marriages, divorces, comedy and tragedy. There’s only so much of that a human mind can take, few of us can stand constant turmoil and upheaval. That’s why the mental health of those in extreme situations suffers: refugees, long-term domestic abuse, and homelessness amongst others.
Being in an emergency job such as medicine means you are party to a constant stream of Life events: births, deaths, monumental illnesses. All the things that intrude into our bubble of stability to rudely remind us of what we already know but wilfully forget: life is random, and hard, and cruel, and important, and wonderful.
So medicine isn’t “just a job” in that sense: it’s an enormous privilege to bear witness and to help human beings through the hardest and most real times in their lives.
But if you let that tragedy in too much, you expose too much of yourself to that constant stream of suffering, you run the risk of your own mental health, exceeding your mind’s capacity to process capital L Life events.
That’s why it’s important to know in a positive sense that medicine is “just a job” too.
Knowing it’s “just a job” means you know you can walk away, which validates and empowers that unconscious choice to walk back in again.
We all chose to do something important with our lives, but we should all recognise that that was a “choice”, and take heart in that.
We should always recognise that we chose to help others, and that no one has an infinite individual capacity to do so; that’s why we work in teams, that’s why we do go home, that’s why we should remember to look after ourselves so we can look after others properly.
So yes, medicine is “just a job”; you have the freedom to walk away at any time, and, I hope, be empowered to choose to come back again. It’s a job, yes, but it’s a job like few others; it’s an enormous privilege and it is honestly one of the best jobs in the world.