Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Surgeon Puts Down the Scalpel

Personal Perspective: Working on well-being now promotes a better retirement.

Key points

  • Retirement brings a number of emotional challenges and complexities.
  • Focusing on our well-being in the present sets us up for a smoother transition to retirement in the future.
  • Self-identity is significantly challenged by stepping away from a career.
  • Maintaining friendships external to work supports continuity in our relationships upon retirement.
Personal Image/Gary SImonds
Source: Personal Image/Gary SImonds

When the echoes of a previous neurological illness became too loud, I stepped away from the operating table. Upon reflecting on my own experience, and sampling that of others in a similar stage of life, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more we develop our well-being in our working years, the less stressful will be our transition to retirement.

Let’s explore some of emotional complexities of this major epoch in our lives and strategies to help manage them.

Loss of Internal Identity

Let’s face it: Many of us invest a lot of our personas into our work. In turn, we define ourselves by our careers, our work titles. We ARE surgeons, nurses, firemen, analysts. When we depart from these roles, we experience a sudden evisceration of our selves, of the people we've defined ourselves as being for so very long. Some find it near impossible to surrender their work identities and hang on well past their shelf lives.

Strategy: The more we cultivate alternative identities throughout our lives, the more resilient we are to the loss of one. And there’s no limit to number of available non-work identities. One can be a parent, a painter, a hiker, a banjo player, a humanitarian, a political activist, and so on.

Personal Image/Gary SImonds
Source: Personal Image/Gary SImonds

Loss of External Identity

As a corollary, we often offer up to others, as our identities, our work titles. And we often derive ego gratification from the societal impressions and approbations afforded said titles. But, "all glory is fleeting." In our culture, you are what you currently are doing. Zero credence is afforded the retired CFO, the former plant manager, or indeed, the once neurosurgeon.

Strategies: The more we externally identify ourselves by our non-work interests, the less emphasis others place on our work titles. Rather, they see and relate to us through the lens of our passions. The bonus: an amateur musician remains an amateur musician despite stepping away from his or her career.

Comfort With Our Environment

Many of us develop great comfort with our work environments. We understand its order, its culture, its ethos—often better than we do our homes, our cities, our societies. That is, we come to normalize our work environments and see the "outside world" as potentially foreign, deviant, disorienting, and intimidating. With retirement, we’re cast out into this brave new world with little preparation or "in-servicing."

Strategy: The more we willingly encounter our out-of-work life, the more familiar we become with its trappings. The more we engage it, the more we normalize its culture, and the more we find interest and fulfillment within it.

Control Within Our Environment

Our work environment may be dysfunctional and byzantine, but we get it. We know how to make it work. We derive from this a sense of control. What’s more, if our work is related in some way to our comfort, our entertainment, our financial status, or our health, such facility may bring about major perks. As a physician, for example, I automatically went to the front of the line for all personal and family health problems. Upon retirement, however, our workplace's functionality evolves, the personnel move on, the architecture is restructured, and we become strangers in a strange land. In addition, many of us change locations to places where our facility and connections mean nothing.

Strategies: We would do well to remind ourselves of the tangible and intangible benefits of our work lives, and recognize they likely won’t be a permanent given. This should at least encourage a greater day-to-day appreciation of our lots, and perhaps some empathy for "outsiders" who don't now how to so readily navigate the system. For benefits that are critical to us, it is worthwhile to learn well ahead of time the mechanics and challenges that we will encounter when we become fellow outsiders.

Personal Image/Gary SImonds
Source: Personal Image/Gary SImonds

Loss of the Pack

We are tribal beings. Many of us bond intensely with a select group of co-workers who share the same challenges and experiences as us. We develop within the group our own working rhythm, ethos, attitudes, dialect, and humor. We may feel closer to these people than to family members and friends. When we leave, many of the group continue on. We become irrelevant to the business at hand. Our opinions are no longer informed or welcomed. Our presence may even become a hassle. We become detached from, and forgotten by our Band of Brothers/Sisters.

Strategies: Critical to long-term well-being is a broad and diversified circle of friends. This seldom can be derived solely from our work environments where so many interactions are transactional in nature. It is worthwhile to cultivate and invest in friendships with those who we feel the bond of shared interests, passions, and values. These friendships will be the ones that persist despite dramatic shifts in our lives.

Down-regulation of Inherent Stress

Let's identify one of the many positives of retirement. Few work roles are stress free. Most are stress-intensive. Retirement releases from these stressors. For example: after thousands of operations, I worried that I would sorely miss performing surgery upon retirement. I found, however, that I didn’t miss it at all. This might be because even the "easiest" procedures carried an extensive slate of inherent stressors. With no operations facing me day after day, my stress-meter is consistently well out of the red zone.

Strategies: In our work, it's critical to seek ways of eliminating or tempering the day to day hassles that drive our stress. For the stressors that can't be eradicated, we should strategize on how to adaptively respond to them. And, in persistently high-stress/low-control environments, we need to establish regular and substantial breaks in the action. When we retire, we should celebrate being unshackled from the stress cauldrons of our careers. We don’t recognize the weight we carry until it is lifted off our shoulders. We should revel in the relief.

This is the first in a series of posts.


Simonds, G., & Sotile, W. (2019). Thriving in Healthcare. Huron Consulting Group LLC. ISBN-10: ‎1622181085

Simonds,G. Sotile, W. (2018). ‎The Thriving Physician. Huron Consulting Group, LLC; 1st edition. ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1622181018

Calvo, E., Sarkisian, E., Tamborini, E., (2013) Causal Effects of Retirement Timing on Subjective Physical and Emotional Health. The Journal of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 68, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 73–84

Okamoto, S., Kobayashi, E., Komamura, K. (2023) The Retirement–Health Puzzle: A Sigh of Relief at Retirement?
The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 78, Issue 1, January 2023, Pages 167–178,

Myllyntausta, S., et al. (2019) Does removal of work stress explain improved sleep following retirement? The Finnish Retirement and Aging study. Sleep, Volume 42, Issue 8, August 2019, zsz109,

More from Gary R Simonds MD MS FAANS
More from Psychology Today