Work Life Balance by Specialization

Kristen Campbell
Jan. 9, 2021
10-minute read

What is work life balance to you? The standard definition of work-life balance refers to the level of prioritization between your personal and professional life, and how much of your personal time you spend doing work; however this definition is often contested, especially among doctors. Some suggest that instead of striving for a work/home life they can deem ‘balanced’, doctors should focus on finding happiness in all aspects of their lives, including time spent both at work and at home.

While work life balance might be a foreign concept for some, there’s good news: in one Canadian study, 62% of doctors surveyed were happy with their work life balance. So what are the secrets to their success, and what are the differences in work life balance across specializations? While work life balance can boil down to a number of factors – such as family situation, income, the healthcare setting you practice in or even how you define work life balance – there are plenty of tried and true strategies that work for all types of specialists. Here is some of the best advice, across all specialties, for Canadian doctors. 

General Practitioners

As a family doctor, you will typically work standard hours in a clinical setting, giving you more flexibility and stability to plan your life around your work. Unlike other specialties, where high demand might mean late hours, long nights in the emergency room, on-call shifts or emergency surgeries, family doctors can count on steady and consistent work. It’s not surprising then, that more than half of general practitioners report that they’re happy with their levels of work life balance. What is surprising is that among all doctors, they are also in the three specializations most likely to report burnout (alongside internal medicine and emergency medicine).

If work-life balance isn’t causing problems with burnout for GPs, what is? The research above suggests that the emotional exhaustion of seeing a high number of patients in a day can be tough on family physicians. As a doctor on the ‘front lines’ of our healthcare system, family doctors shoulder a considerable burden when it comes to providing patient care. So even if the hours aren’t as bad as other specializations, the work expected to get done in those hours is still somewhat a concern.

As a doctor, it can be tempting to say yes to everything – especially if your ‘yes’ means helping another doctor, a patient, or even saving someone’s life! But most doctors agree that too many ‘yeses’ mean a ‘no’ to work life balance, and can put you at higher risk of burnout. Doctors should make mindful choices in the work they take on, especially at the beginning of their career or in the first stages of a new role. One of the benefits of a medical career is that there is no shortage of options for how to use your skills, especially as a family doctor. Between clinical/hospital work, leadership roles, and educational opportunities, there will always be new demands on your time. Saying no to some of these opportunities will help you guide your career down your chosen path, as well as protect more of your personal time overall. 

Medical Specialists

Some medical specialists, such as psychiatrists or pediatricians, enjoy a comparatively high level of work-life balance, with over 50% of those surveyed satisfied with the balance offered by their current role. However, others – such as dermatologists or ob/gyns – have a comparatively low level of satisfaction with their work-life balance, with levels sitting at just under 40%. 

While longer hours are often part of the job in a more complex or demanding specialization, plenty of issues with burnout and work-life balance can also come down to high administrative workloads. And for medical specialists, handling the paperwork from large batches of referrals coming in at once can be a headache. To get a handle on your work-life balance – and make more time for yourself – make sure you have systems put in place to help you with your paperwork, billing and other administrative duties. While much of your paperwork will likely have to be done by you, delegating what you can and creating systems to handle the rest – such as setting aside one afternoon a week or booking off an hour at the end of the day to handle your administration can be helpful. 

In addition, many doctors find it helpful to automate repetitive tasks as much as possible by using their EMR system. Even if learning a new system or feature seems to be time consuming at first, asking other doctors in your office, using the community hub, or getting technical support from your vendor can save you a lot of time in the long term. Keeping on top of your billing is another way to manage admin – and finding an easy to use billing software (like Dr. Bill) can help you cut down the time you spend.

Surgical Specialists

Despite working more hours than other specializations, surgeons are surprisingly happy with their level of work life balance – of three surgical specializations, plastic surgeons and general surgeons are generally quite happy with how things are, with just under 50% of them reporting satisfaction with their work-life balance and most of them reporting high levels of professional satisfaction. However, work-life satisfaction and burnout rate varies widely across surgical specialties; opthamologists report some of the highest levels of work-life satisfaction across all doctors (68%) while just 30% of cardiothoracic surgeons are satisfied with their current level of work-life balance. 

Some of this comes down to the nature of the job – cardiothoracic surgery is stressful and life threatening, and heart surgeries are almost always emergency situations. Many surgeons work long hours in highly stressful situations, and this can take a toll on your work-life balance – as one surgeon points out, a ruptured spleen or an emergency appendectomy simply won’t wait for the end of a dance recital or soccer game. 

Since surgeons are so specialized, delegation is a key strategy for managing your time. While there will always be plenty of work that comes down to you as the surgeon, there’s probably also no shortage of tasks you do in a day that could be better left to someone else. Many of these tasks are work related, but you might be surprised at how many obligations you have outside of the office as well – paying bills automatically, having groceries delivered, hiring a cleaner or paying for childcare can be a great way to cut down on your out of office responsibilities and make sure that time when you’re at home is well spent. 

Emergency Medicine

Like family and internal medicine specialists, emergency medicine doctors are on the front lines for burnout. However, according to the Canadian Medical Association, they have comparatively high levels of work-life satisfaction. 56% of emergency medicine specialists reported satisfaction with their current level of work-life balance.

However, doctors with young families can often find the work-life balance of emergency medicine more difficult – as working night shifts of irregular hours can cut down on the time you’re able to spend at home, and make it more likely that you’ll miss out on important life events. Like surgeons, emergency cases simply won’t wait until the end of a dance recital – but finding balance in the ER can be easier than you think. Experts suggest working part-time (at several different workplaces) can be beneficial in giving emergency medicine doctors greater control over their working lives, and suggest that joining hospital committees and getting involved in the organization where you work can give you back a sense of control and help build resilience at work. 


What is work life balance? No matter what your specialty is, the answer to ‘what is work life balance to you’ is going to be different – whether it’s being home in time to have dinner with your spouse, not missing out on a child’s school play, or simply having enough time to exercise and eat well, work life balance is what you make it. Deciding what is most important to you – and making enough time to pursue it – is crucial to a happy working life, and one that is beneficial to both your medical career and to your patients.

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Kristen Campbell
Kristen Campbell is a content writer with experience writing for technology, real estate, healthcare, and higher education. She holds a BA from McMaster University and a B-Comm. from the University of Calgary, and is passionate about creating content that’s both educational and engaging.
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