the chronicles of a House Elf: my 11th month as a House Officer in Singapore + the effect of bosses on workplace morale

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This is part of an ongoing monthly series capturing the highs, low (and everything in between) in my life as a freelance doctor working in Singapore. If you’re interested in finding out about medical/non-medical careers or getting answers to doctoring-related questions, check out my Chasing Careers series!

Phew, 11 months down and just 1 more to go. The thought of us having to magically level up our medical skills and pull off Sailor Moon-esuqe transformations into Medical Officers on 26 April is kind of terrifying. But at the same time, I’m excited and relieved to welcome a new batch of House Officers – new slaves to take over the mountains of administrative work we have to deal with (I’m kidding, but it’s kind of true).

Anyway, as the title suggest, I’ll be writing about team morale & the trickle-down effect of bosses on workplace culture in this month’s post. I know I’ve yammered on about this in past posts, but I’m feeling particularly inspired once again after some recent happenings.

Everyone talks about how it’s important to foster a ‘hEaLtHy wOrKpLaCe cuLTuRe’ and many pretend to care about the wellbeing of their employees & coworkers, but ironically they may be the very ones perpetuating a less-than-ideal workplace culture.

Before we dive in, here’s the usual disclaimer: This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

From my admittedly limited 11 months of working as the lowest life form in various public hospitals, I’ve realised that actions speak far louder than words. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience both extremes of the spectrum – from high morale teams where everyone felt respected & enjoyed working together (I’m endlessly grateful for those teams/bosses), to lower morale teams where everyone seemed tired & miserable labouring under certain bosses, and everything in between.

I mean, wouldn’t it be ironic if the health (physical & mental) and morale of employees in healthcare were neglected in our pursuit of providing quality healthcare to everyone else? (but anyone working in the local public healthcare system in this current pandemic knows that it’s our unfortunate reality)

why I’m enjoying my current posting/department

Before the rest of this post descends into a diatribe about workplace culture, I’ll start off by recapping my 11th month of House Elf-ship. This past month has been great, despite being in a subspecialty with the heaviest patient load, and it was made so enjoyable because of the people in my team and other coworkers.

In stark contrast to some of my previous experiences, this workplace feels like a breath of fresh air. No micromanaging, genuinely friendly bosses (even our consultants- the most senior doctors), reasonable expectations, and leisurely vibes (but we’re still efficient).

Work-life balance is fairly protected here, with everyone usually getting 1 full day off a week – and no, a work week for a healthcare worker is not 5 days like the average person, it’s 7. Bosses here actively encourage us to knock off at 5pm and are mindful of our welfare, which might sound like a basic human right to non-doctors, but is rather precious to House Elves Officers like us.

And truth be told, I don’t even dread going on call* in this department. I’m not sure if it’s because I enjoy the nature of patients/cases in this specialty or if it’s because the calls involve a lot of human interaction – both with the on call team & the patients.

* for those new to my blog, calls are lonely and brutally long days where we work from ~6am on one day and leave work around 12pm the next day, which works out to ~30 hours straight of being physically present at work. We get half a day off and then it’s back to our regular working hours the day after. House Officers do 4-7 calls a month, depending on your (mis)fortune.

After enduring 4 months of absolutely lonely calls spent walking up and down long, empty fluorescent-lit corridors to see patients at night, then another 4 months of shuttling between my call room and attending to patients alone in the wee hours, occasionally catching glimpses of other colleagues on call, I’ve reached the point where any human interaction is greatly welcome on call.

Simple things like chatting over late 8pm dinners with the on call team are such morale boosters compared to my first 8 months of calls, where I ate dinner alone just facing a blank wall. Calls are mentally and physically exhausting, so every small bit of joy goes a long way.

Long story short, I’ve had a great time in this department so far, and a huge part of it stems from the positive trickle-down culture (good bosses/leadership) and generally high morale.

traits of an unhealthy workplace

Moving on to the uglier parts, this is my ranking of what makes a workplace suboptimal based on personal experience, in descending order of toxicity (because we should at least make fun of my misery):

  1. Blame culture/lack of respect
  2. Poor communication/no transparency
  3. Witch-hunting/gossiping/bullying
  4. Micromanagement
  5. High-pressure and unrealistic expectations
  6. ‘Back in my day’/boomer mentalities
  7. Low morale (directly caused by everything above)

Imagine having superiors who expect you to be a mind-reader and know exactly what they require without communicating expectations prior, then turning around and blaming you for not having read their minds.

Imagine receiving texts from various senior colleagues/bosses at work at 10-minute intervals, getting phone calls about the said message if you fail to reply promptly enough, having to recharge your work phone thrice within an 11-hour work day because of how frequently you’re inundated with requests, calls and texts.

Imagine being tired at the end of a draining 80-hour work week, then being told by your boss that ‘back in their day, they worked 36 hours straight with no rest’ and that my generation of doctors are ‘sTrAwBerRieS’, as if its some badge of achievement to have no sense of personal wellbeing.

I won’t dwell on these too much because I’m sure every working adult has had similar unpleasant experiences, and I’d rather focus on the positive things than give unnecessary airtime to the parts I rather forget. Thankfully, these have only occurred in a minority of my months thus far.

But having experienced all that firsthand, I have a newfound respect for anyone, in medical or non-medical fields, who are on the receiving end of such treatment on a regular basis – it’s a huge killer of workplace morale, reflects a level of distrust towards the employee’s capabilities, creates needless stress & anxiety and just feels…..ugh.

It sucks that I’ve experienced all this ugliness in under a year of work, and I know my friends/fellow junior doctors have faced similar issues or even worse, but I’ll just write it off as an accelerated programme in the School of Hard Knocks. If anything, it makes me determined to do better for my juniors when I become a senior doctor someday.

why public hospitals can be uniquely low morale workplaces

Unfortunately, I’ve realised that some work environments are particularly potent breeding grounds for low morale, not the least of which being public hospitals (in any country/healthcare system). Here’s some of the reasons why:

  • The nature of the job – dealing with sick patients and being required to constantly make important decisions to optimise patient care makes for a stressful and high stakes environment. Top that off with trying to manage each patient holistically and handling delicate social issues to the best of your abilities, and you have a recipe for stressed out employees.
  • Stressed out bosses/seniors – The intensity (or chillness) of the most senior doctors in a team has a trickle-down effect on the various levels of juniors in the team (Registrars, MOs, HOs) and can drastically sway team culture in either direction.
  • Expectations – from bosses, patients, their families; sometimes the pressure just comes from all angles. And since a lot of us in Medicine tend to have a slightly perfectionistic streak, we try to live up to the expectations of various stakeholders even at our own expense, pushing ourselves beyond the call of duty to make others happy.
  • High patient load/overworked employees – Pretty much everyone in hospital would describe themselves as overworked (surely 60-80h a week is too much…right?). And when faced with what feels like an endless stream of tasks or paperwork to complete, morale isn’t exactly at its peak….

Looking at the number of times I typed the words ‘stress’ or ‘pressure’ in the points above, it’s clear that a high-pressure work environment staffed with stressed & tired employees simply isn’t optimal for workplace morale.

So how can we improve things? A lot of these are systemic issues, or deeply ingrained parts of what we brush off as ‘Medicine culture’ (especially the high stress & long hours), which are harder to fix overnight, but small things like being a kind boss or being friendly/cordial to coworkers would already go a long way.

on how to be a good boss/senior at work

I’ve had seniors who’ve taken care of me (thank you to all the seniors who buy food for their juniors), taught me useful tips for work, checked in on my wellbeing and had nice deep talks about life with. I’ve also had seniors who tried to sabotage my future prospects, thrown me under the bus, or been unnecessarily rude/unprofessional. All the ups and downs of Housemanship have taught me how to be more empathetic towards and protective over my juniors.

I’m not going to be one of those toxic boomers who pass comments like ‘bAcK iN mY tIMe, I suffered under my bosses so you should suffer too, fOr y0uR oWn bENeFit’, because there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to improve on our own less-than-ideal experiences and do better than our predecessors, to make the workplace less toxic for the next batch/generation.

Not all good doctors are good seniors/colleagues. It’s easy to be genuinely kind, friendly and caring towards patients, while exhibiting toxic behaviour towards junior doctors behind closed doors, often in the name of ‘training’ or ‘character development’. Anyone & everyone can say they aspire to be a good doctor, but more importantly, I aspire to be a kind senior and coworker.

This month’s rec is a soothing and nostalgic song perfect for late night listening:

Walk Me Home by Said The Sky, ILLENIUM & Chelsea Cutler

I could cry an ocean to keep me afloat
But the walls won’t let me
I could leave the party and no one would know
But my feet are too heavy

Some say she’s fickle as water
Someone’s daughter, someone’s
2 a.m. kiss in the night
Some know nothing about her
Why she takes cold showers
Why she’s a girl tryna get back inside

Moon, walk me home

I’ll continue sharing my journey as a House Officer/junior doctor and wherever life takes me after Housemanship year, so be sure to follow my Insta or Facebook page to stay up to date with my latest posts and life updates!


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If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, doctoring, psychology, random musings), or check out my most read series below:

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2 responses to “the chronicles of a House Elf: my 11th month as a House Officer in Singapore + the effect of bosses on workplace morale”

  1. One more month to go, Faith!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nic, and all the best for the rest of med school! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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