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Avoid Physician Burnout: Create and Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

January 18, 2018

Avoid Physician Burnout: Create and Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

Physician Work-Life Balance Tips


Maintaining healthy work-life balance is challenging for everyone these days. For physicians, it can be especially daunting to achieve this elusive, yet vital goal. Long hours, odd schedules, increased patient loads, administrative overhead and the traditional occupational stress of just being a physician all combine to stack the deck against you.

Creating a healthy work-life balance begins with taking a baseline inventory of how you actually spend your time—both during the workweek, as well as downtime. This type of accounting can provide eye-opening awareness of how you actually allocate time when not consciously trying to manage it. This insight, in turn, can reveal which areas to target when attempting to make improvements.

This first step is often the toughest to implement because it requires paying attention to, and then capturing, how you allocate and spend time in a written journal or on a portable electronic device, e.g., using the Notes app on your Smartphone. This can be especially difficult for busy, on-the-go physicians. So, start by tracking your leisure time in 15-minute increments. Keep a running list. For example:

12:00 midnight-6:00 am: sleep 

6:00 am-6:15 am: wake, stretch, let the dogs outside, make coffee 

6:15 am-6:30 am: turn on television, watch morning news 

6:30 am-6:45 am: take a shower, brush and floss teeth Etc.

Try to build your baseline accounting for at least one week, preferably a month—the longer the better, although more than one month is probably overkill. Also, be certain to choose a relatively ordinary week or month, and not one during which you have a planned vacation or holiday.

This tactic will feel burdensome to follow for even an entire day, but it’s really the best—perhaps only—way to develop a useful accounting of how you actually spend your days. In the process, the awareness you develop will also help you begin to make better choices about how best to allocate your time.

Once you create this baseline accounting of how you actually spend your work and free time, it’s time to conduct an analysis. Develop some basic categories to describe your activities, e.g., sleeping, grocery shopping, cooking/eating, dining out, hygiene, exercise, patient rounds, record keeping/administrative tasks, paying bills, meetings with colleagues, commuting, etc.

After you become aware of the overarching trends in your own personal approach to time management, you can then identify the areas where you need (or want) to make changes.

For instance, if your daily commute consumes so much time that it precludes you from routinely exercising and relieving stress, perhaps it’s time to focus on relocating closer to work to free up enough time to incorporate exercise into your workdays. Or, maybe you spend too much time grocery shopping and cooking/eating at home, when dining out more frequently might be the best alternative to free up time to address a nagging sleep deficit.

Studies show that physicians work 51 hours each week on average and are almost twice as likely to be dissatisfied with their work-life balance than other occupations. This sets the stage for physician burnout. Fix this problem by setting distinct boundaries between time spent with patients and downtime, putting yourself first by learning to say ‘no’ to non-essential intrusions, delegating tasks to others and availing yourself of telemedicine appointments.

Make a case with your employer (or yourself, if self-employed) for flexible hours and/or alternative work schedules, such as part-time work. Physician shortages and new and different lifestyle demands of the millennial generation are both creating an environment in which physicians are increasingly in the driver’s seat when determining the best way to create a healthy work-life balance for themselves.


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