It was in 2009 that Australian palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, began to chronicle her experiences of conversations with dying people and the regrets in their lives they articulated. This led to her publishing a best-selling book, ‘The Top 5 Regrets of The Dying’.
We know that ‘anticipated regret’ can be a motivator for planned behaviour – and this can include making a career change. Indeed, as we’d expect, there is a field of psychological research devoted to regret theory, some of which is related to career decisions. Research examining the regrets of retired professionals makes interesting reading too.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of what Bronnie Ware found were the most common regrets among the dying people she cared for – in descending order of frequency of occurrence:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard (this came from almost every male patient she nursed).
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Kirschman has been counselling US police officers and their families for 30 years. Writing in the January 2023 issue of Psychology Today, she reviewed these regrets in the context of the work of police officers. She noted that, “If you’re a cop, or married to one, some regrets are hard to avoid.”
However, Kirschmann sounded a caution against investing too much of one’s sense of identity in work and not giving enough time to non-work life, “Being a cop is a short-term, highly perishable venture over which you have little control.” The same could be said of any job.
Ware’s book and Kirschman’s article provide thought-provoking observations and reflections, although neither can be said to be rigorous, peer reviewed studies. Dr. Lyndell Hewitt of the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute in New South Wales Australia carried out a more rigorous mixed methods study of 114 retired surgeons from across Australia and New Zealand – all were aged between 62 and 93, 96% of these willing participants were male.
The aim of Hewitt’s study was to categorize and describe the impressions and reflections from retired surgeons regarding their career in surgery.
When asked for comments on advice to younger surgeons, 59% of respondents spoke of the need for self-care using comments such as, “Do not lose sight of your family…Engage in life…Embrace work/life balance at an early stage in your career…Enjoy your work and family.”
The idea of self-care and giving time to life outside work appear common to the observations and studies of Ware, Kirschmann and Hewitt – among the dying, police officers and surgeons.
Is it any wonder that flexible working is among the top requirements of older workers in work and wanting to return to work – especially against a background of many experiencing the benefits of greater time spent with families during the recent pandemic.
Khaleeli, H. (2014) ‘Writing Top Five Regrets of the Dying has brought me to tears’, The Guardian, 16 November. (Accessed 29 May 2023).
Kirschmann, E. (2023) ‘Learning from the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying’, Psychology Today, 2 January. (Accessed 29 May 2023).
Hewitt, L. and Ashford, B. (2022). ‘Career reflections of retired surgeons’, ANZ Journal of Surgery, 24 November. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ans.18173 (Accessed 29 May 2023).