Overworking has become the norm, but that doesn’t mean it should be.
Over half of physicians are experiencing burnout, according to recent research from the American Medical Association. The most common factors include things like physician-patient relationships, regulations, professional liability, and heavy work hours (an average of over 51 hours per week). This lack of work-life balance is destructive to both the physician and to their patients.
For physicians looking to combat feelings of burnout and establish a true work-life balance, here are seven areas of focus to consider.
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.
There are three types of boundaries to consider setting to help keep your personal and professional lives separate:
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. In turn, more burnout leads to resentment and takes a toll on the psyche. Sometimes, “no” is the best boundary you can set.
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% said they choose to relax by doing so. However, binge-watching is actually more likely to increase stress, anxiety, and depression; it can also have negative effects on sleep. Instead, try picking up a new book, get outside, exercise, or socialize with family and friends. Even spending time with your pets can help improve cortisol levels, heart rate, and mental health.
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 – anything but medicine. Whatever it is, put it on the calendar.
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, stick to it and say no. When you use a life calendar, you’ll see your happiness improve and have a better sense of fulfillment. But before creating one, be sure to have a clear idea of your what your values are and the things that are important to you.
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. Why pay people to do things you could do for free? Because you’re buying back the rarest of commodities: time. Skipping mundane or unenjoyable tasks leaves 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 happiness in – called happiness dollars – and found that outsourcing chores can make you as happy as receiving an $18,000 raise.
Sometimes, your work-life balance comes down to work environment. If you’re experiencing burnout, it might be time to consider a new workplace. When interviewing, decide what you want and need for your work-life balance. What’s important to you? What do you want your schedule to look like? What do you need time for each week?
It’s also important to ask questions of a potential employer to better understand the workplace culture and decide if you want to spend your time and energy there. What are workdays like? Why is the position open? What will they expect you to accomplish in the near future? Better yet, take a look at the other employees. If they’re happy and friendly, there’s probably some semblance of work-life balance.
You might consider changing how you work. Many medical group practices shifted their workers to hybrid work in 2021 and saw improved performance, productivity, and engagement. Likewise, physicians that have pivoted to a telehealth career noted an increased job satisfaction and timeliness of patient care.
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. Spending the equivalent of one half-day per week doing something that you care about will not only help you stay engaged at work but also remind you why you wanted to become a doctor. What you focus on is up to you: it could be researching, working with patients, or managing your team. There are no limits.
You might even pursue a side gig or project to create the feeling of work-life balance. While it doesn’t have to be related to medicine, there are several routes you could go, including life or career coaching, medical writing, MCAT tutoring, and serving as a consultant.
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.
Physicians are constantly telling their patients to go easy, and relax – why aren’t they following their own advice? It’s not easy to actively work to find a 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.