I’m Sir Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychological Medicine, and This is How I Work


I am Simon Wessely, and I am Chair of Psychological Medicine at at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences, King’s College London, a Consultant Liaison Psychiatrist at King’s College and Maudsley Hospitals, and am the current President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

So as I sat down to write this piece, I was struggling to decide what it is that I do, let alone where I do it.  Until I opened today’s Guardian, and read novelist Jonathan Coe’s account of his working day (Guardian,  Saturday June 4th 2016). Talking about his working day he says “It lacks shape; it lacks structure; it is of indeterminate duration and its texture is infinitely variable. No one day bears any resemblance to another”.

Quite. So at the moment I am worrying about things like recruitment to psychiatry, our forthcoming International Congress, the junior doctors strike, the government’s antiradicalisation programme, modernising the neuroscience curriculum, persuading National Health Service (NHS)-England to fulfil its promises on child and adolescent psychiatry, hoping the government won’t fulfil some of its promises on welfare “reform”, fulfilling a rash promise to visit every medical school in the UK to talk to students about why psychiatry is a great career (it is, you know), doing media interviews on why it is good for the NHS and science to stay in the European Union (EU), lobbying for more integrated psychological treatment services in primary and secondary care, and joining the Board of my Trust (South London and Maudsley). And meanwhile I continue to lead the King’s Centre for for Military Health Research as well as our unit on psychosocial aspects of emergency response, teaching on our undergraduate and postgraduate courses, and seeing patients with unexplained symptoms and syndromes.

Oh, and going to watch Chelsea Football Club. Which this year fits in well with my professional interest in how ordinary people respond to trauma.

Location: London.
Current Gig: If only there was just one.
One word/phrase that describes your work style: Unpredictable.
Current computer/mobile device: I have a rubbish Acer, which as soon as I can I will discard with relish and dance a jig on its grave. Because of this I also have to carry an iPad at all times, which I really like but can’t write on. And then an iPhone 6. My last one fell under a bus and ended up flatter than a Dover sole. The nice person at the Apple Store took one look at it, laughed and chucked it in the bin.

What apps/tools/software can you not live without?
I move around town a lot, usually on a bike. CityMapper is great for all forms of transport.. Imagine my excitement last month when I discovered it works in both Hong Kong and Paris.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Not worrying too much about e mails. If it’s important they will send it again. Am clearly not Sandro Galea on this. And never send an abstract. Who reads them? And I reserve the First Circle of Hell for those who want a transcript of your talk, either before hand, or even worse, afterwards.

What’s your workspace set up like?
It looks like a café table, because that is usually what it is. Or a table on a train. But not a table on an aeroplane because they are rubbish, or to be more honest, I am rarely allowed or able to fly in those bits of the plane where they are not rubbish. I am an authority on cafes – I usually spend at least an hour a day working in them. Why? Well, I was recently at a reunion of old friends from medical school. We got into a tipsy discussion about what was the most frightening sound in the world. My anaesthetist colleagues seemed to have quite a repertoire, most of which reminded us all of that famous entry in the index of a popular textbook we had all used during our training – “Blue, patient turning”. Then we remembered sounds from our electives and travels around the world in our younger days – the hiss of a cobra in the tent, a police siren behind you on a deserted American highway and so on. But my contribution was that being in your office, and hearing someone knock on the outer door of your PA/Secretary’s office, and then a voice says “Is he in? I need to see him now”. I won. And that’s why I spend an hour a day working in cafes.

How do you keep track of things you need to do (any to-do-list apps)?
I have a lot of different to-do lists, which is in itself a problem. Probably the best “to do” list is an occasional session just flicking through old e mail and then feeling so guilty about what I haven’t done that I at least do one thing. Perhaps two. But rarely more. I bet Sandro doesn’t have to do that – lucky chap.

Besides your phone or computer, what gadget can’t you live without, and why?
Actually may I turn that around? What gadget can you live you without? The answer is Powerpoint. It’s the work of the Devil. I have been trying to quit the addiction for a long time now, and am nearly there. Life is so much better – there were withdrawal symptoms of course – anxiety, physical symptoms, shaking and so on – but now I am almost clean and feel a much happier, relaxed and more authentic person. You should all try it.

Think about it for a second. Which people most want to communicate directly to an audience? Politicians. Do they ever use Powerpoint? No.

What everyday thing can you do better than most people? What’s your secret?
Chairing meetings is something I do a lot at the moment. My secret is always but always starting and finishing on time. There are no exceptions. I also do a lot of public speaking – at least once and usually more per day, and the secret of that is to cycle to most events, and practice the start and finish as you pedal along (you get very odd looks from other cyclists but ignore them).

What do you listen to while you work?
I used to listen a lot to classical or jazz, but I am afraid these days I don’t do that very much. First, I always knew it was distracting right back to student days. But then my memory was good enough for it not to matter. That’s no longer the case. Second – it’s difficult given my routine so often involves café tables. I could use headphones I suppose, but then I wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop on neighbours. London is actually quite a small place really, and I have often picked up rather juicy gossip that way. I find myself again empathising with writer Jonathan Coe who also “likes writing in noisy, public places”.

What are you currently reading?
I am a voracious reader of history books, and always have several on the go. At the moment it’s Mary Beard’s SPQR, Robert Tomb’s The English and Their History, a history of the Ukraine, Joel Dimsdale’s account of psychiatry at the Nuremberg Trials (Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals) and Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Cheerful it isn’t.

How do you recharge?
Whenever I can find a plug in one of those cafes

How do you balance your work life and your home/family life?
Very badly indeed. I am lucky that my wife was the leader of Britain’s general practitioners before I took over at psychiatry, so she was just as bad as me, and can’t complain about the fact that I am out nearly every night at the moment. When we had our 25th wedding anniversary our sons gave a speech and said that our relationship could be summed up in one word – “competitive”.

Most people are surprised that our children have turned out pretty well, given the above. We did always have very good holidays, doing things that made it impossible for either of us to work (family cycling holidays, skiing and trips to parts of the world where we knew there would be no electricity). Plus the Saturday routine of going to Chelsea games together.

Also, because we live in Central London close to Whitehall, it meant that both of us often entertain at home, so the boys were introduced to a variety of interesting people and adult conversation, politics and the like from a relatively early age

What’s your sleep routine like?
That’s fine, except for my wife’s twitter account buzzing. She is a total addict and keeps telling me about how many followers she has, even in the middle of the night.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When our equivalent of your Chair of the Joint Chiefs gave his farewell address at King’s College he said he had learned three things in his career – “never march on Moscow, never get engaged in the Balkans and never trust the Royal Air Force”. Always seemed sound advice to me, and I use it when addressing graduating classes. To which I usually add “and never send a text or e mail after drinking too much”.

Simon Wessely




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: