Friendship and Work in Medicine and Healthcare

In 2001, Digby Anderson wrote a short book, Losing Friends, about what he described as the decline of friendship. This New York Times “At Lunch With” pieces ummarises his argument:

”All past civilizations have declined, and Western civilization is about due to go,” he said, gamely piling his plate with assorted meats and salads. ”The death of friendship is one symptom of that.”

He says he believes political extremism has rendered friends powerless to help one another. Liberals’ insistence on equal opportunity and impartiality, he said, has led to ”egalitarian bureaucracy,” a muddling of what had once been smooth-flowing business networks based on friendships. Years ago, he said, friends happily helped one another find jobs; today they shy away, lest they be accused of favoritism.

”Even though it makes sense to hire a friend, or even a friend’s friend, there’s this feeling that you have to give everyone an equal chance,” he said.

The blow from the right, he said, has been a constant emphasis on the family as the ”repository of all virtues” — and, thus, the only institution worthy of trust and time.

”The ancient Greeks had a better idea: they considered their friends to actually be their family,” Dr. Anderson said.

My recollection of the reasons he gives in the book why “it makes sense to hire a friend, or even a friend’s friend”, is because of the special knowledge which friendship gives us about someone’s true nature. A friend – a true friend – is also less likely to screw over their friend… or at least thats the theory. I wonder how strong the evidence is for the counter argument, that hiring friends is somehow bad?

I am not sure how much I buy of Digby Anderson’s overall argument about hiring friends etc, but there is definitely something in his reflections on the decline of friendship.

The official blurb is also interesting:

“One loyal friend is worth 10,000 relatives”, said Euripides. Aristotle thought friendship the best thing in the world. Saint Augustine was devastated by the death of a friend, “All that we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him”. For men as different as Dr Johnson, Coleridge and Cardinal Newman friendship was a great, moral love. For Cicero it was a foundation of social order. For Burke “good men [must] cultivate friendships”. To try to lead a good life on one’s own is arrogant and dangerous. In past ages business thrived on the trust of friends; armies won battles on the loyalty of men to their comrades and people were attracted to and schooled in medicine, law and academe by friendship. This friendship of the past was high friendship, a friendship of pleasure but also of shared moral life.

LOSING FRIENDS contrasts this high friendship with the “pathetic affairs” which pass for friendship today. Friendship is in trouble. An institution once as important as the family, has been “diluted to mere recreation…passing an odd evening together…sharing the odd confidence”. It is being outsted from business through fear of cronyism and squeezed between the demands of work and the increasingly jealous family. Fathers neglect their obligations to their friends at the club or pub to bath their children. Many of us will have no friends in illness, in need or at our funerals. Bewildered letters to agony aunts ask how to make friends. Schools are absurdly introducing classes on how to do so. Our society has no public recognition of friendship and cannot even discuss it articulately. When it does it sentimentalizes it. Modern society is wealthy, healthy and long lived. Aristotle would ask what the point of such a life is if lived without friends.

I have (or had) a copy of the book somewhere. I read it in around 2004. The message did resonate, and since I have seen how social pressures that tend to squeeze out friendship intensity.

Healthcare in general, and medicine in particular, is on one level a fertile ground for friendship. One ends up spending a lot of time with other people engaged in what is  a highly intense, demanding role. It is natural enough for some strong bonds to form, as over the hurried coffees and lunches some small talk is exchanged. There has also been a boozy culture around medicine in the past at least, and while one could make many observations on the role of alcohol as a form of self-medication, there was a social side to all this.

And yet the structure of medical training in particular is not conducive to longer term friendships. One spends three, or six, or at most twelve months in a post as a trainee  doctor. The intense friendships of one rotation are suddenly severed. With the best will in the world, and my sense is the unreal interactions of social media have exacerbated rather than ameliorated this, it is hard to keep up. And when one completes training, the camaraderie of the res room is something that is closed to you.

The factors that Dr Anderson discusses – the suspicion of anything that might hint of favouritism, the dulling bureaucratic managerial discourse of healthcare management, a sort of idolatory of the family now as much a left as right wing feature – are present in medicine too.

How does friendship relate to the issues of morale and a healthy work culture I have blogged about before? The importance of “psychological safety” in team interactions is emphasised in Google’s Project Aristotle as key to successful team interactions. Fostering a sense that teams can communicate openly, without fear of recrimination or embarrassment, sounds to me very much like fostering friendship. Of course, perhaps this is falling into some kind of trap where friendship can be subservient to the interests of an organisation, and indeed denigrating friendship as something that needs to be justified in pragmatic, utilitarian terms.

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