Recognising stressors in your work can help you reframe the mundane, embrace the meaningful and get more joy from your career.
“Is optometry stressful?” I was asked that recently by a year 12 student who was contemplating studying optometry next year. My instant response was “Nah, not at all. You get to have a chat with a new person every 20 minutes and help people see. Optometry is not stressful at all, it’s great!” We chatted for a few minutes about the pros and cons of being an optometrist, and I think I sent her on her way with a new career path.
Was it good advice? Is optometry stressful? Having been an optometrist for 25 years, I have gone through stages of both loving and, occasionally loathing it. Recently, I had nine months off to write a book, Stress Teflon, and pursue other interests. I loved the freedom of non-retail hours and the ability to do whatever I want. Be careful what you want… you just might get it.
As the sabbatical came to a close, I realised that I missed my team, I missed interacting with people (all your friends are at work) and most surprisingly of all, I missed my PATIENTS. Believe it or not, I missed hearing about Mrs. Jones’s petunias and how Mr. Robinson’s hip replacement went. I missed my tribe and I missed helping people. The time off gave me an excellent opportunity to rethink my priorities and helped me find joy in my chosen profession.
Writing a book about using stress is a great way to get people talking about the problems in their life and I asked a lot of my friends about the stress of running an optometry business. Putting these learnings together, I have come up with my top five optometry stressors (and how to deal with them).
Stress 1: Which One is Clearer, Number One or Number Two? The Repetitive Nature of Eye Tests
You: “which one is clearer?”
Patient: “the first one is BLAH, BLAH BLAH…”
Over time, I have asked the relative clarity of an eye chart 3.6 million times; ‘Which one is clearer… this one or that one?’ Repeating something over and over until it becomes a habit decreases one type of stress and increases another. Being able to do an eye test on ‘autopilot’ is really easy, the stress comes from boredom and the lack of a challenge. The key to overcoming the boredom and repetition of optometry is in learning to switch in and out of autopilot. You need autopilot to get through the boring bits, but you have to get out of autopilot to get the enjoyment and pride from the interaction with the patient. Optometry is about connecting with people, showing empathy and understanding while solving their problems. You can’t do that on autopilot. The skill lies in the ability to autopilot through the boring bits and embrace the more positive parts of the job.
Stress 2 Dealing with the Public
“I am an idiot and just drove my car over my glasses. I want you to replace them under warranty?”
Optometry is dealing with the public and all the stress that comes along with that. People can have unrealistic expectations, everyone wants a bargain, and apparently, it’s OK to be rude to people in retail… it’s their job to put up with that. The public can be frustrating, stupid, selfish and downright ignorant. If you get stressed by unrealistic or demanding customers, your stress hormones will increase, and it will make you defensive and dumb. If you appear stressed, the angry customer will mirror that and become angrier. To help problem customers (and not strangle them), you have to ‘care and show you care’. Once you establish that you are there to help and that you care, you can get down to the business of solving problems together. I have often asked myself, “How much would I pay to get rid of this problem?” The answer is usually less than the cost of a remake or refund. Just fix the problem, let it go and move onto the next one.
Concentrate on your business and trust that good service and value will retain your clients
Stress 3 Margin Compression is Real
The business side of optometry has become more difficult. Prices have gone up for rent, staff and cost of goods, while health fund rebates have stayed stagnant for more than 15 years. Margin compression is real and you certainly have to work harder to get the same returns you got 10 years ago. Big, value-driven players like Specsavers or Warby Parker in the U.S. have made the public aware that there are low-cost optical solutions. This has put pressure on the industry as a whole to keep prices reasonable. Stressing about the competition is like stressing about gravity. You can’t do anything about what your competition is doing. Concentrate on your business and trust that good service and value will retain your clients. No-one wins a race to the bottom of the price barrel.
Stress 4 Scarcity of Time, Profit, Optoms, Staff or Patients
There is a finite amount of time, number of optometrists and good staff. The optical pie is only so big. Scarcity causes your stress hormone, Cortisol, to spike. Not enough patients, not enough time and difficulty with staff will all cause a stress response. How you react to the stress response is the key to making the stress non-stick. Keeping the logical part of your brain connected will ensure that stress doesn’t make you defensive and dumb. Work the problem and don’t let stress put you into a spiral that makes scarcity worse.
Stress 5 I’m Just an Optometrist, I Don’t Make a Difference
WRONG. Optometry gets easier after a few years. You learn to deal with challenges, make fewer mistakes and it gets harder to feel like you are making a difference in the world. ‘Pride from inside’ is a vital piece of the happiness puzzle. Just because something is easier, it doesn’t make it less important. Catch yourself helping people! Savour the appreciation you get from Mrs. Ginsberg because you diagnosed her glaucoma, and enjoy the look on the -2.00 teenager who just looked up from her iPhone and could see in the distance for the first time in years. The world is a better place because you are helping people see. Savour that. Catching yourself doing good work is the key to developing your ‘pride from inside’ hormone Serotonin. It’s the key to mood, happiness and making stress slide off.
Reframe and Embrace
So, we can agree that optometry has some stress associated with it. Reframing some of the mundane parts of the job and embracing the meaningful parts will help you find the joy in helping people see. The more you enjoy it, the better you get at it and the less likely you are to struggle with toxic stress. If you would like to read more about how to use stress, go to www.stressteflon.com and order a copy. It’s good being you when stress doesn’t stick!
Luke Mathers is the principal optometrist and store owner of Specsavers at Pacific Fair in Queensland and a director of Specsavers. He co-authored Stress Teflon with cognitive neuroscientist Mick Zeljko. To order a copy of Stress Teflon visit Stressteflon.com/store/stress-teflon.