Learned helplessness

I bumped into a work colleague today, who told me that he had been given the role of ‘clinical lead’ for the ‘18-weeks’ policy, (18 weeks is the new NHS maximum time a patient should wait from referral to specialist treatment).  I asked him how he felt about that.  He sighed and said, “I don’t know what the word for it is, but I feel the opposite of empowered!” 

I smiled and replied, “The feeling is called ‘learned helplessness’.”  Helpless because there’s no help, and learned because of bitter experience. How sad it is!  This is a guy who has been trained to do surgery.  It’s what he likes to do – be in the operating theatre, cutting.  He knows that nearly all the surgeons in the hospital have waiting lists longer than 18 weeks and has no idea what to do or even how to approach the problem.  He assumes he’ll have to work harder and make everyone else work harder.  He felt a personal, heavy burden had been laid on his shoulders.   

This is a common experience of many doctors in the NHS.  They find themselves in fairly senior leadership positions but with little or no training in management or leadership.  Then, when they fail, everyone wonders why!   I think having a name for his emotion helped.  I hope to help him over the next few months see that there are better ways of working, it is possible to organise effectively and he can make a difference! 


One thought on “Learned helplessness

  1. Pingback: Beyond Clinical » Change your questions, change your life: 7 powerful tools for life and work

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