Allissa Charlesworth, 36, is optometrist director in Chesterfield and Matlock. She tells Spectrum what she loves about her job and explains why she can be a health adviser, a fashion stylist and a counsellor in the course of a single appointment.
How long have you worked in optics?
Fifteen years. I’ve been at Specsavers for 11 years, and the progression has been fantastic. I’ve risen to be a co-director working across the Chesterfield and Matlock stores. I get to do what I love, which is the day-to-day optometry work, and I’m also a part-owner of the stores. With a team of three other directors, I’m responsible for ensuring the success of the stores and manage them with the support of the central support office teams.
What training have you done?
I did a three year BSc in Optometry at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, followed by a pre-registration year training on the job. To become a director I completed a course called Pathway, a six-month programme for optical staff hoping to be joint venture partners. I learned from more experienced partners about what it takes to be successful, taking on board other people’s experiences to provide best customer service.
It was great to learn about team communication in the context of business planning, which gave me an increased self-awareness of how I communicate.
Clinically, I’m constantly upskilling myself and the team. Recently we’ve done additional training on glaucoma, how to treat minor eye conditions and how to best support customers living with dementia or autism.
In my own time, I’m studying an Independent Prescribing course, which will allow me to prescribe treatments such as eye drops instead of referring customers on to their GP.
Why did you decide to become an optometrist?
I always loved going to the optician when I was younger. I had glasses as a child and I found the whole process of testing and choosing glasses really fascinating. My niece and grandad are visually impaired, so I was interested in ways to help people with similar problems. Finally, I’ve always enjoyed studying biology and how the body works, so all those interests came together perfectly.
As I looked into it more I also realised that it’s a really sociable job, which appeals to me, and it’s really flexible, which has been helpful with family life over the years.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
I spend about 70% of my time with customers, testing people’s eyes, fitting contact lenses, advising on glasses frames, arranging referrals and so on. The other 30% is spent working on whatever the current business needs are – which could cover HR, marketing plans, undergoing training, mentoring and so on. I try to spend as much time on the shop floor as I can, as meeting customers is definitely still my favourite part of the job.
What do you enjoy, and what’s challenging?
The best parts of the job are people based, whether it’s helping customers, advising on frame choices, or mentoring colleagues who are training to be optometrists.
Some of the most memorable moments have been hearing back from customers who I referred on to their GP or the eye hospital for further investigation or treatment, and finding that early detection of a problem has been sight saving, or even life saving.
No two days are the same, which I love, but that’s because all customers have really varied needs and need very tailored experiences. This does sometimes cause timing challenges, which can be frustrating, but usually we’re able to work together as a team to balance customer and business needs and keep everyone happy!
Has anything unexpected ever happened?
It’s rare so it’s always unexpected when an eye test reveals a serious underlying condition. Over my career I’ve detected brain tumours, eye tumours, strokes, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and other conditions that customers were completely oblivious of.
This can sometimes require quite urgent action, such as an emergency appointment with a specialist eye doctor, so it can be quite overwhelming for the customer. My role is to keep them calm and explain the situation in easily understood terms, but not understate the urgency to ensure they seek treatment as soon as possible.
How do people respond when you tell them what you do?
People are really interested and they like to tell you all about their glasses! It’s always a talking point and the response is usually very positive.
Has your job changed the way you behave in any way?
I would say it’s been really positive for my confidence: I was really shy when I was growing up and needed bringing out of my shell. Now, chatting with customers is one of my favourite parts of the job.
What might surprise people about your job?
They’d probably be surprised about the conditions and problems I come across when doing eye tests – they think of optometrists as people who are checking you can still see clearly, and have no idea about what can be picked up from an eye test. A lot of people who don’t need glasses don’t see why they should go for an eye test or realise how important they are.
Do you have different testing styles for different customers?
You develop your own techniques and ways of testing and your process will need tweaking for everyone, as everyone who walks through your door is so different. We’re always getting new equipment too. A lot of optometrists are geeks at heart and we love to invest in the latest gadgets.
Do you have a typical customer?
No – our customers are from all walks of life. It’s interesting how we interact with customers: I can find myself being a health adviser, a fashion stylist and a counsellor in the course of a few minutes! Some people who come in can be quite lonely and like to have a good chat. I also really enjoy helping people choose glasses, especially if they choose a fashion-forward look.
How do you feel about the future of optometry?
We always need more optometrists. Optometry isn’t offered at every university and there’s a shortage of people signing up to the profession.
I think in the future we’ll see optometrists becoming more connected with front line and community health services, able to treat customers in the community for more complex eye health needs, removing some of the burden from the NHS.
Anything else we should know?
If you work hard, there are always progression opportunities in optics – and especially at Specsavers, in my experience. I see people all the time starting as Saturday shop floor assistants and being guided through the process to become lead optometrists, partners or optical specialists.
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