Work Life Balance for Doctors: Planning a Balanced Life

Kristen Campbell
January 7, 2021

As a physician, work life balance can sometimes seem like a foreign concept – how can you justify taking time off when you have patients, labs, and referrals to get to? Being a doctor is one of few professions where truly having time off is often difficult – even if you have a day out of the office booked, you could get an urgent call about a patient, receive lab work that needs to be followed up on right away, or get called into the ER to cover a co-worker’s shift. In medicine, anything can happen – and some doctors don’t even consider work life balance part of the job. So, is work life balance possible for doctors?

Importance of Work Life Balance for Doctors

Research suggests it isn’t just possible, it’s essential: high rates of burnout, depression, and suicide tend to follow doctors whose lives are out of balance, with disasterous results. Not only is overworking bad for your health, the importance of work life balance is also crucial to your patients: doctors who are burned out are more than twice as likely to make patient errors! With the advent of technology, the lines between work and home have blurred considerably, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Many physicians say work life balance isn’t less likely than in previous years, it just might look different. Although you may find yourself bringing more work home, you are less likely to need to go into the office to do it, and are more able to take flexible hours, remote work days, or use other means of finding balance between your home and your work life, creating more of a work-life ‘integration’, rather than a balance. 

What Affects Work Life Balance?

According to research done on the topic, the biggest factors in work-life balance are workload, workflow, and scheduling – the amount of work you need to do, the staff available to handle it, and the times at which you’re required to work. Burned out doctors cited paperwork demands, bringing work home, and the feeling of guilt when taking time off as reasons for their feeling out of balance. At the organizational level, one of the main challenges to physician’s work-life balance is the amount of hours they’re required to work – 24 hour on call shifts are different from 9 hour workdays on a standard week, but both will take a toll on the amount of time you have for your hobbies and other aspects of your non-working life. Physicians in the first study cited the hours of paperwork they were required to complete, on top of their 9 hour day of seeing patients, as what affects work life balance for them, and these demands – in addition to keeping up with email and phone communications about patient files – can end up being work that you bring home. 

Another factor affecting work life balance for doctors beyond the amount of hours you’ll need to work is when you’re expected to work them. Whether you’re working a lengthy (but standard) day in a family practice, long nights in the ER, or a seven day on, seven day off shift at a hospital, it can be difficult to fit the often unusual demands of medical practice into your life. Missing important life milestones – such as birthdays, dance recitals, or soccer games – is painful, and often inevitable in practices that don’t have enough staff coverage to support physician’s taking time off. Scheduling around these milestones, and revisiting your work schedule around big life changes like a child’s graduation or a new baby, is crucial to finding balance. 

Beyond your working hours, physicians surveyed also point to a demanding workload as a reason for feeling that they can’t balance their work and life priorities. A large workload, without enough time to complete it, is also a key driver of burnout, especially when you feel that the work you have on your plate has gotten out of hand. This goes doubly so when this work is not related to seeing your patients – heavy paperwork or administrative demands, as well as staff meetings or training sessions, can be especially draining when scheduled or necessitated after work hours. 

How to Balance Work and Family Life

So if workload, administration, and scheduling problems are at the root of physician burnout, how can you balance work and family life as a doctor? With help – while many of the physicians surveyed pointed out that they are satisfied with the patient care aspect of their job, the solutions proposed for dealing with burnout all centered around getting the rest of the organization involved. Flexible hours, adequate staff coverage (so physicians feel comfortable taking breaks or using their vacation days) and holding meetings, training, or mandatory events during work hours (instead of outside of them) were all suggested solutions for how to balance work and family life. 

On the personal level, there are plenty of strategies for how to balance work and family life, depending on what your ideal work and home life looks like. For example, parents with children could schedule their hours around being home earlier in the evening, and many physicians striving for work life balance with children suggest using a cleaner, nanny, meal delivery service since, according to Dr. Eric Cadesky, doctors “have trained too long and worked too hard to spend time doing things [you] don’t like that others can do” – and this includes household chores! While you might want to do some of these things yourself, if you find yourself working a lot of hours, getting help can make the most of your time at home – spending quality time with your loved ones in the hours where you’re not at the hospital or clinic can mean just as much if you’re mindful about your time and present with your family. 

Paradoxically, some doctors suggest that as long as you’re thinking of ‘work life balance’ as a polarity between work and the rest of your life, you will never find harmony. Ceasing to think of balance in terms of life as good and work as bad – which erases the meaningful and satisfying role work can have in your life – can be helpful; when you consider your time at work as time spent with colleagues and friends, helping others and leaving a mark on the world, the pursuit of a work-life balance becomes ‘an obsolete concept’. However, thinking of work in this way does necessitate some basic requirements, such as not missing out on meaningful activities with your friends and family, maintaining satisfaction at work and at home, and not letting yourself get too burned out. 

Work Life Balance and Burnout

Burnout can be a problem for doctors whether you are passionately engaged with your work or underwhelmed by your current role – the complex demands of the medical system, combined with high levels of administrative paperwork, long hours, and emotionally demanding responsibilities can leave doctors feeling emotionally drained, depersonalized, and depressed. 

However you define it, work life balance and burnout are intertwined, although high levels of burnout were reported even among physicians satisfied with their work-life balance. In fact, general practitioners – typically considered to have some of the best levels of work-life balance – also have some of the highest levels of burnout. This suggests that for physicians, beating back burnout isn’t simply a case of spending less time in the office. 

Canadian researchers suggest the problem of work life balance and burnout comes down to having a manageable amount of work and adequate time to complete it, as well as feeling in control of when and how you can get it done. Mountains of paperwork or a never ending stream of patient calls can make even the most passionate physician feel burned out just as often as a shorter workday with some especially difficult patients. As a rule, experts say combating burnout in physicians starts by committing at least 20% of your work time to the tasks you feel most passionate about – whether it’s managing a team, researching medical problems, or working with patients, dedicating at least one half-day per week to doing the work that makes you feel excited to be a doctor is a feasible way to keep burnout away. 

 

Conclusion

Work life balance is a necessary part of your life – but what it looks like is up to you. Whether it’s integrating and harmonizing your work with the other aspects of your life, working remote or reduced hours, setting up automated systems or arranging your schedule around the needs of your family, the most important thing to remember is that there are no set rules on what a balanced work life looks like. Instead of worrying about whether your work life is balanced, focus on doing more of the things that satisfy you and keep your passion alive – both in and out of the office!

 


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