HealthMarch 09, 2020

Achieving work-life balance for doctors with families: Solutions that go beyond quitting your job

By: Melissa Welby, MD
How do doctors have time for a family? Work-life balance for doctors can be achieved by taking a time inventory and following a few rules. It can be done!

As a busy physician with three children, I’m continually managing the demands of life. The moments are rare when all the plates I’m juggling stay in the air without one crashing to the floor. As I pick up the pieces of one broken plate, I try to keep the others going, but the fact is, if there are too many plates to keep track of, it isn’t sustainable. Unfortunately, most of my colleagues feel the same way. Physicians writing about work-life balance for doctors often report that they’ve achieved it by switching careers, stopping work or reducing to part-time hours. These are great solutions for some, but how do doctors have time for a family when they can’t or don’t want to leave their jobs?

In medicine, to create an effective treatment plan, we must understand the problem, recognize the cause and treat more than the symptoms. When our working diagnosis is wrong, so are our solutions. Let’s take some of the lessons we’ve learned about treating chronic disease and apply these to the persistent struggle surrounding work-life balance for doctors. As with chronic illness, to be effective, our approach needs to include a comprehensive understanding of the contributing factors and a treatment strategy to address them all.

Assessing work-life balance for doctors

The first step in the process of creating balance is to analyze the plates you’re juggling. Dissect each of them to better understand the responsibilities and demands of your life. Keep in mind that each specialty comes with its own burdens; one paper in Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, for example, looked at the challenges to work-life balance specifically in obstetrics and gynecology.

Next, take an inventory of how you spend your time both at work and at home. Just like with a financial plan, if the little purchases are left off, the budget won’t add up. As much as we’d like it to be different, we only have 24 hours each day. Where and how do you spend your time?

Once you have a clear understanding of your responsibilities and what you spend your time doing, go through your list and ask yourself: Do I enjoy this? Does this task serve a purpose for me to make it worth it? Can I delegate or automate this task? Which activities and people are priorities for me?

How do doctors have time for a family?

To make progress toward life balance, keep the following three reminders within reach.

1. Work-life balance is not static

The plates we juggle shift over time, so our systems must shift with them. We need to remain mindful of how we spend our time to understand the impact new responsibilities or activities have on our schedules.

Say that when you went through your initial inventory, you determined that you wanted to continue cooking your family’s meals because the time spent was enjoyable and worth it. But now your child has joined a new sports team. Does that change your priorities? You may decide that regularly going to games is more important than cooking and realize you need to delegate this task.

Remember, there are only so many plates we can keep in the air at once without others crashing to the floor.

2. Saying yes to one thing means saying no to another

Many of us become physicians because we love to help people. Beyond medicine, residency taught us that we could survive on minimal sleep and that hard work doesn’t scare us. This means that when people ask something of us, we often say yes. But don’t forget that if you agree to do something, you must also agree not to do something else. Again, our daily budget can only add up to 24 hours.

For example, if you love teaching and are asked to have medical students shadow you in the clinic, you may jump at the chance. But what gets taken away? Does the number of patients in your schedule get reduced? Is additional administrative or teaching time built in? Without accommodations at work, by saying yes you agree to have less time at home.

Before you choose to do something, always make sure the costs are worth it. Be intentional about how you spend your time and determine if a commitment is in line with your goals before you agree. As one paper in the Annals of Plastic Surgery points out, physicians who never put themselves first risk burning out.

3. Work-life balance will never be perfect

Even if we’re mindful of the responsibilities we take on and the ways we spend our time, things will still not always be in balance. Unrealistic expectations of what work-life balance for doctors looks like can add to feelings of stress, guilt and failure. Instead of perfect balance, we need to strive for an improved blending of our responsibilities.

As we walk, our weight shifts from leg to leg. Unless we get tipped far off-center, we usually don’t fall over. If we catch our foot on a rock, we may stumble but can often prevent a fall by adjusting our weight.

We will continuously have competing priorities that require us to shift back and forth between what we focus on. Work-life balance doesn’t mean that you always spend equal time focused on each plate. It means finding what works best for you and giving yourself grace when the plates aren’t balancing out.

Work-life balance for doctors does exist!

The good news is that as attention and research on the negative effects of poor work-life balance mounts, there is hope for systemic improvement, as The Health Care Manager argues. While those changes take shape, it’s up to you to take control of your own situation.

Being a physician is a tremendous privilege that we worked hard to attain. We all gave up years of our lives for this, and we shouldn’t need to walk away from medicine to spend time with our families. To create balance, we need to be ruthless in our decisions about how we spend our time. Many of us need to learn to say “no” more, limit time-wasting activities, delegate low-priority tasks and focus on the commitments and people we value the most. If we use our time wisely, both at work and home, we’ll be more successful at having a personal life that’s as fulfilling as our career.

Melissa Welby, MD
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