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Creating good endings

November 01, 2008

One of the latest promotional gimmicks used to market DVDs is including alternate endings. If you've rented a video lately, you've probably noticed this attraction emblazoned on the cover. You can watch the video with the traditional ending or an alternate one that perhaps more closely resembles the way you like movies, and life, to turn out. This is a clever approach since the way a movie ends has a strong effect on how we remember it. We all have had the experience of really liking a movie until it ends in a way that leaves us feeling disheartened and disappointed. Once this happens, we judge the whole story by what happened in the last few minutes.

Just like movies with alternate endings, we have a choice about how we handle “endings” in our careers. Whether we're ending a specific job or career, we can choose to create an ending that reflects and reinforces our accomplishments. The people we are leaving behind, both service users and colleagues, then will be better able to integrate our positive contributions if we put some effort into delivering a strong ending.

The way we handle endings has an impact on promoting recovery too. The alarming frequency of staff turnover in behavioral healthcare programs provides constant opportunities to create endings that further the recovery process.

Frequent turnover happens at all levels, from line staff to top leaders. In fact, before we realized that people can recover from mental illnesses, and before we began to re-gear services to promote recovery instead of maintenance and stabilization, the only people who weren't turning over constantly were those being served by the programs. Thankfully, in recovery-oriented programs that has started to change.

But what hasn't changed is the revolving door of staff. Not long ago we overheard a person telling a receptionist, “I've had six different case managers this year and a string of temporary doctors. I'm tired of telling each one my life history. I feel like saying, ‘Just read my chart on your way out the door.’”

An obvious solution is to slow down the revolving door of frequent endings. They still will happen, but we can capitalize on endings by addressing them with wisdom and respect. Our goal is to transform endings into opportunities for positive learning/growing by coming up with an “alternate” ending that leaves relationships intact and lays the groundwork for new beginnings. A good ending frames the way we will remember the whole experience.

Take a look at what your policies and procedures say about endings. Maybe it's time to rewrite your guiding principles so they reflect recovery values and practices. HR directors, take note.

  • When an employee gives notice of leaving, make sure the people he has been working with are notified in a respectful way that preserves their recovery process. One approach is to have the departing employee personally ask each person to complete a satisfaction form co-signed by both.

  • Plan some overlap so the departing employee can introduce his replacement. Administrators may say, “We can't afford that! We can't have two people in the same position at the same time.” Yet you're not only getting a great final contribution from the departing employee, but you're giving his replacement a chance to have a meaningful beginning. This could be more effective than 30 hours of new hire orientation. Getting off to a good start based on forming good relationships can go a long way toward reducing staff turnover.

  • Have the employee's “caseload” (Oh, how we hate that term) orient and train the new employee. Maybe they even could be involved in selecting the new employee. Yes, this idea is a little over the edge, but maybe we need to go there. After all, if we don't get a little radical, not much is going to change.

These practices can become routine and meaningless, so the key to keeping them alive and effective is to keep paying attention to them. Keep asking this question: “Was this transition handled in a way that enhanced the tenure of the employee and the recovery of the people he served?”

The endings we create at various points in our careers are essentially up to us. Here are some tips to consider as you choose your endings:

  • Instead of winding down and tiptoeing away, this is a time to move into a higher gear to compensate for the low energy that will be left by your absence. The energy and effort you invest in each transition will strongly influence the way your work is continued and the way you are remembered.

  • Instead of doing as little as possible during your last few days on the job, make sure all of your work is up to date so you can create a solid bridge for whomever takes your place. This takes some discipline since your interests already may be invested in your future opportunities, but these final efforts really can help the work you already have done stay intact.

  • Instead of drifting away from those who have worked under your guidance, make sure you connect with your staff in ways that solidify your contributions and also prepares them for their new leader.

We want to share a thought dear to our hearts. It has to do with the way we handle not just the transition to a new position, but the transition that's inevitable—the end of a career.

Neither of us have any plans to retire for a long time, but we do wonder what it will be like. The end of a career often is a point where we have more status, influence, and wisdom than any other time. Many seem to be tempted to bow out “gracefully” by not making any waves, perhaps thinking it's too late to start anything new or make any radical changes. Yet what a waste it would be to not use the brilliance, wisdom, and influence of a long career to go out in a burst of positive energy that could infuse others with encouragement and hope for a transforming future.

At the end of our careers, we are well aware of our gifts and know what our best contribution can be. This is not the time to tiptoe away, but rather the time to gather up all our strengths and weave them into a brilliant finale that picks up notes and passages from our entire life's symphony, leaving others with songs of transformative power long after we've moved on.

So whether you're at the end of a job or career, or maybe just at the end of a day, here are some questions you can ask yourself that may help you create inspiring alternate endings:

  • What more can I give? Are there things I'm good at that I haven't contributed? What have I held back?

  • What's keeping me from giving my best and creating a great ending? What would it take for me to do this? What would it look like?

  • Who do I need to partner with to have a great ending?

A great way to bring this conversation to a close is with a few lines from Dylan Thomas's wonderful poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Scholars don't agree on the intent of Thomas's poem, but we side with those who believe it encourages us to fulfill our potential, to not leave anything undone or ungiven.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

…burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Lori Ashcraft, PhD, directs the Recovery Opportunity Center at Recovery Innovations, Inc., in Phoenix. She is also a member of Behavioral Healthcare's Editorial Board.
William A. Anthony, PhD, is Director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University.

To contact the authors, e-mail

Behavioral Healthcare 2008 November;28(11):8-9

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