How doctors can achieve better work-life balance

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published January 15, 2020

Key Takeaways

Achieving a good work-life balance can be challenging, but it’s essential for both your well-being and your ability to successfully practice medicine. And—it turns out—the secret to work-life balance for doctors may hinge on better self-care.

A quick Google search of the term “work-life balance” will call up hundreds of tips on how to achieve it. But, they all seem to have one thing in common—they involve self-care—something physicians are notoriously bad at.

Consider this: While 80% of physicians believe it’s important for them—personally—to practice self-care, only 57% of respondents practice self-care often. Their reasons for not doing so include job demands (59%), burnout (25%), and the inability to quit bad habits (20%).

These data come from two surveys conducted by The Harris Poll for Samueli Integrative Health Programs in May-June 2019. Survey participants included over 300 US family medicine and internal medicine physicians and over 1,000 adults.

If you fall into the group of physicians who do not practice self-care regularly, here are a few ways you can  achieve work-life balance.

Identify whom/what is most important in your life. Ask yourself who the most important people and activities in your life are. Then, draw some boundaries and carve out time to focus on them.

Trim time-wasters. Take a strict inventory of your day and the things that you consider less-than-productive. Do your staff meetings spiral out of control and take up more time than they should? Does answering your emails get you off track and cause you to waste time indefinitely? Does your practice partner go on and on about his daily workout? Do EHR updates send you into a procrastinating spiral?

Know yourself, know your priorities, and make strict rules to help you—and those around you—stay on task. Put strict time limits on your meetings, for example. Or, politely excuse yourself when your partner starts in on how many reps he got in at the gym last night. The strict rules are for yourself and others. Limiting the things that waste your time will help you carve out more time for the things that are important to you.

Don’t try to do it all. Focus on the activities you value most and delegate the rest. Enlist the help of “key stakeholders” in the different parts of your life, says Stewart Friedman, management professor and founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program and Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, Philadelphia, PA. These key stakeholders may include colleagues at work, employees, or your spouse/partner. Doing this will not only free up your time, but also allow your stakeholders a chance to grow.

Make small changes, reap big rewards. Similar to other lifestyle changes like diet or smoking cessation, achieving proper work-life balance involves lifestyle changes. And these are best made a little at a time, rather than drastically. Making too big of a change—say cutting your work hours down from 80 hours a week to 40—will never work. Start small and work your way up. If you start big, you will surely be met with failure. If you start small, you can use the small victories to build momentum in achieving larger changes.

Engage in regular physical activity or meditation. For better work-life balance, set aside regular and adequate chunks of time each week (and optimally, each day) for self-care, which should include some sort of physical activity. Exercising and meditating are great ways to relieve stress and take care of both your physical and mental states. And exercising isn’t just good for your health, it can also make you a better doctor. Exercise, do yoga, or meditate. Find what works for you, and stick with it.

Do something that brings you joy. When you’re not at work, do something that brings you joy. Catch a matinee with the grandkids, pick up a good book and enjoy a good read, or start a new hobby. Hobbies are a great way to relieve the stress caused by the busy practice of medicine. They can add interest to your life and give you something to look forward to in your spare time. Engaging in a hobby forces you to relax and refocus your energies. Hobbies demand that you be present in the “now,” and concentrate on something--anything--other than the stressors in your life. Pick something you are interested in. Some examples of great hobbies to try include orienteering, historical re-enactment, home-brewing beer, bird watching, survival training, yoga, and gardening. Focusing on something you enjoy doing gives your mind a chance to take a breather from focusing on things you have to do. Try it!

Bottom line

Keep in mind that work-life balance does not mean that you spend equal amounts of time at work and off work. It means finding what works best for you, your health, and your peace of mind, and deters burnout. Also remember that little changes mean a lot, especially in achieving work-life balance.

“Too many people believe that to achieve great things we must make brutal sacrifices, that to succeed in work we must focus single-mindedly, at the expense of everything else in life. Even those who reject the idea of a zero-sum game fall prey to a kind of binary thinking revealed by the term we use to describe the ideal lifestyle: ‘work/life balance.’ The idea that ‘work’ competes with ‘life’ ignores that ‘life’ is actually the intersection and interaction of four major domains: work, home, community, and the private self,” Friedman wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

“From years of studying people in many different settings, I have found that the most successful people are those who can harness the passions and powers of the various parts of their lives, bringing them together to achieve what I call ‘four-way wins’—actions that result in life being better in all four domains. My research has shown that there are ways for everyone—from the managers of sales teams, to executives in government agencies, to computer engineers, to florists, to coaches—to achieve professional success without always having to sacrifice the things that matter in their personal lives,” he concluded.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter