How to manage working the holidays during residency

By Kristen Fuller, MD
Published December 22, 2023
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Key Takeaways

It’s tough to be a resident during the holiday season. Although your work schedule improves after your training, you may not be able to spend every holiday season with your family. Personally, I worked every Christmas during residency (but, fortunately, was given New Year's Day off). 

Logistically, I wasn’t able to go home for the holidays, because my family lived across the country—something that may be true for you as well. 

Working the night shift on Christmas

"I spent my first Christmas in residency working the night shift. I felt depressed, lonely, and angry."

Kristen Fuller, MD

My mindset has changed for the better since those early training years, because I have learned that working holidays, nights, weekends, and a generally odd schedule is par for the course in medicine. 

I have become so accustomed to working on Christmas that it no longer phases me, but when I do get to spend this time of year with my family and loved ones, it is much more memorable.

Overall, I have learned to embrace and enjoy working holiday shifts—there are even some perks you might not consider when you’re in the trenches of residency.

Your work environment can be jolly

While the words “hospital” and “jolly” aren’t usually used together, things can feel a bit different during the holiday season.

From surgeons dressed as Santa Claus, to hospital carolers, to nurses bringing in endless supplies of baked goods (not to mention holiday office parties), we have learned to make the best of working during the holidays. 

Usually, your patients and their families are more appreciative, and contrary to popular belief, unless something terrible happens, the mood is generally upbeat. It's essential to keep a mindset of gratitude and joy around this time of year, even if you are working and far from your family, as it can improve your work environment. Wear an ugly Christmas sweater to work, bring your favorite meal or dessert to your coworkers, and try your best to embody the joyous holiday spirit. 

You learn to be more appreciative

Working the holidays can make you appreciate spending time with your family and loved ones even more when you are off work. It means you won’t ever take another holiday spent with family for granted. It is easy to become stressed and frustrated when we have to work during this period, but I like to take a look at the bigger picture. 

"We are gainfully employed with a decent paying job, we are not the patients in the hospital, and we get to serve others who are sick around this especially vulnerable time."

Kristen Fuller, MD

You learn to be flexible

Being forced to work holidays during residency teaches you to work around the job's demands. Some people opt to celebrate the holidays on a different date. A personal example is if I am working Christmas Day, I will often celebrate the day after or postpone my warm holiday vacation until the week after Christmas. 

"Being flexible with your work schedule can translate into flexibility outside of your professional world, which will serve you well throughout your career."

Kristen Fuller, MD

Your coworkers will be grateful for you

Working the holidays means your coworkers in your practice or hospital can spend this time with their families. Your coworkers may not only feel grateful for this, but you can also strategize a personal benefit: If you ever need a favor, like a change to your work schedule, your coworkers may be more willing to step forward, because you stepped in for them.  

You may earn more money

Picking up shifts during the holidays may mean you get holiday pay, though this depends on your contract, practice, or hospital. 

Many hospitals are short-staffed during this time of year and therefore desperate to find coverage, meaning they are willing to pay more. This can be negotiated into your contract, but it may already be there—most hospitals offer holiday pay during this time of year. 

You may be less busy

Working during a holiday proper may mean less to do, compared with the day after, as people are reluctant to leave their families and seek medical services on one of these days. For example, the day after Thanksgiving is often busy with gallstones, congestive heart failure exacerbations, and so on, but Thanksgiving day, I have found, is usually pretty quiet.

While changing your attitude about working is easier said than done (especially because it seems like everyone else in your life is free from any responsibilities), it’s imperative to get through the season and start the new year off on the right foot.

You know that residency isn’t easy—a chaotic work schedule with little in the way of positive work-life balance is just par for the course. But trust that experiences like these are setting you up for a successful career as a physician. And one day, very soon, you will know it has all been worth it. 

Each week in our "Real Talk" series, mental health advocate Kristen Fuller, MD, shares straight talk about situations that affect the mental and emotional health of today's healthcare providers. Each column offers key insights to help you navigate these challenging experiences. We invite you to submit a topic you'd like to see covered.

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