In this day and age, overworking has become the norm – but that doesn’t mean it should be. When we work too hard for too long, the resulting stress and exhaustion wreak havoc on us both physically and mentally.
That’s why finding a healthy work-life balance is so crucial. Unfortunately, more than 66% of Americans say they don’t have one. This is especially true for physicians, who are more likely than the general population to experience burnout.
Recent AMA research shows that over half of physicians are experiencing burnout. This level of burnout is so concerning that the Surgeon General has declared it a national crisis. The most common reasons include factors like difficult physician-patient relationships, administrative burdens because of regulations, stressors related to being named in a malpractice suit and demanding work hours (an average of over 51 hours per week).
Of course, we must ask ourselves if a work-life balance is even possible for physicians when a majority say they don’t have time for themselves. But it’s important to find and make that time, even if it doesn’t solve every problem doctors face.
Here are seven areas of focus for physicians to consider when trying to find more work-life balance.
How to establish work-life balance as a doctor
Many physicians find it difficult to set boundaries, but doing so is an excellent form of self-care. When done correctly, boundaries can improve both your personal and professional lives.
Boundaries are meant to protect all of our needs (physical, emotional, mental, and time) so that we can be our best selves and remain productive and energetic. It’s important to be clear about your boundaries upfront, so that they are a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to protecting your well-being.
There are three types of boundaries to consider setting to help keep your personal and professional lives separate:
Temporal boundaries. These are specifically for leisure activities, such as spending time with loved ones or taking part in your favorite forms of exercise. Try to set aside a specific time each day or week to dedicate to these activities that are outside of work time.
Physical boundaries. Physical boundaries create a literal distance between your work life and home life. The idea of turning off your phone or computer may seem difficult to do, but it can be done with some planning. Even if you take your computer home to finish up charting from there, you can designate a particular time to do it so that it doesn’t bleed into other home activities.
Cognitive boundaries. A cognitive boundary is one that allows you to leave work behind completely and not spend time thinking about it while you’re off the clock. This may seem daunting, but even small steps can make an impact. Evaluate how much of your time outside work is spent thinking about work. When you become aware that you are actively thinking about work, you can say to yourself: “This is my personal time. I’ll think about it once I am back at work tomorrow.” Each time your mind drifts back to work, just repeat your boundary mantra.
Don’t forget that the word “No” is a boundary within itself. Saying yes and taking on more when your plate is already full leads to more burnout. More burnout, in turn, leads to resentment and takes a toll on the psyche. If you’re feeling overworked, “No” is the best boundary you can set. Identify the major tasks at work that you are responsible for and are non-negotiable as part of your job. When things arise outside of that, practice saying no.
Make and defend a life schedule.
Go old school and use paper and colored pens to create, stick to, and defend what Dr. Dike Drummon calls a “life calendar.”
Once a week, meet with your entire household and have everyone write down what they have going on in pens of different colors.
Next, write what you want to do outside of medicine that week. It could include getting coffee with a friend or family member, going out with your spouse, or exercising. Whatever it is, put it on the calendar.
Take a picture of the calendar with your phone so you can have it with you at all times. The easy part is done; now it’s up to you to defend it.
If someone asks you to do something, such as taking on an extra shift or staying for an extra hour, you must check your life calendar before deciding. If you see there’s a commitment, honor yourself by politely saying no.
Outsource your life when possible.
Outsourcing your life doesn’t mean handing off everything on your to-do list. Instead, it simply means you take the most mundane tasks and have someone else do them at a low cost.
You can outsource almost anything, including cleaning, dog-walking, calendar scheduling, and laundry. You could even have someone on an app like TaskRabbit mount your television.
Skipping mundane or unenjoyable tasks can leave you with more time to do what you enjoy.
One Harvard professor found that getting your time back improves quality of life and that those who prioritize time over money are happier in the long run. She even came up with a metric to measure that contentment in “happiness dollars” and found that outsourcing chores if you’re able to can make you as happy as receiving an $18,000 raise.
Interview to gut check your current employer.
Sometimes, your work-life balance comes down to your work environment. If you’re experiencing burnout, it might be time to consider a new workplace.
If you’re able, see what other positions are out there and apply. Interviewing, learning about other organizations' cultures and practices, and even entertaining new employment offers can help you see how your current position is measuring up.
Before you start interviewing, spend some time thinking about what your ideal workplace and schedule would look like, and what benefits packages would be attractive to you.
Many medical group practices shifted their workers to permanent and/or hybrid work in 2021 and saw improved performance, productivity, and engagement. Consider if hybrid work would be on your list of preferences as you start to look around. Likewise, physicians that have pivoted to a telehealth career noted an increased job satisfaction and timeliness of patient care.
Seeing what else is out there may lead you to a better fit, or it might make you realize that you actually want to stay put. Either way, looking around can help you to feel more empowered about your medical career.
Identify what aspects of your work you have passion for.
Research has found that doctors who spend less than one-fifth of their full-time equivalent (FTE) on things they’re passionate about are far more likely to suffer burnout than others.
Work in the medical field in a post-pandemic era isn’t easy. Doctors, patients, and the world at large have been through tremendous stress. Rushing around day to day and being overworked can make everyone forget why they went into medicine in the first place.
Take some time to identify what aspects of your work make you feel fulfilled. Look to see if there are any ways to increase time spent on those aspects and if there is any wiggle room to decrease the aspects that drain you.
Evaluate your screen time.
It’s entirely common to unwind after a hard shift by turning off your mind and turning on the TV. In a recent study, 80% of workers said they choose to unwind by doing so.
However, in reality, binge-watching is actually more likely to increase stress levels, anxiety, and depression. In addition, it can have negative effects on sleep. Simply put, it makes finding a work-life balance more difficult.
Instead, try picking up a new bestseller, getting outside, exercising, or spending time with family and friends. Even spending some time with your pets can help improve cortisol levels, heart rate, anxiety, and mental health. That’s not to say that watching your favorite show needs to stop; just be mindful of how much time you’re spending watching, and how close you’re watching to bedtime.
Take your vacation.
Finally, take your vacation. You earned your days off, so why not use them? Research shows that one-third of physicians take two weeks or less of vacation each year, but taking that time away is crucial.
Not only does it help to reduce work-related stress, but it also helps regulate your emotional and physical states, increases time with loved ones, and improves work performance. Trust that the work will get done while you are away, and know that taking all of your time off is preventive medicine.
It’s not easy to actively work to find better work-life balance, and doing so will take time and dedication. Remember, it won’t solve all of your problems – but it’s a great place to start.
This material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide financial, legal, tax, nor any other professional recommendations or advice.
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