Doctor Work-Life Balance: The 3-Step Plan

Physician burnout affects an astonishing 42% of all U.S. doctors, according to a new survey by Medscape. The compounding stress of work for doctors has been growing for decades, and it can feel like this is simply the new reality of healthcare in the country. How can doctors cope? There's no one-size-fits-all solution, because many of the factors that contribute to burnout are out of the doctors’ controls.

A recently released Medscape survey outlined some common factors according to surveyed doctors:

  • Over 50% said excess of bureaucratic burdens like charts and paperwork
  • 40% said working too many hours
  • 26% said lack of respect from employers and coworkers
  • 24% said increased computerization via electronic health records
  • 24% said not enough compensation
  • 21% said lack of control/autonomy

These usually relate back to expectations not being met in terms of what the doctor thought the job would be and what the employer actually expects.

While setting accurate expectations during the interview can help prevent burnout before it starts, once it starts the priority becomes finding work-life balance. Particularly for doctors with families, the need to find work-life balance may be even stronger.

Though there’s not an easy solution, creating a clear plan can start you on the path to balance. To help you build a thought process around it, we’ve put together a 3-step plan that will help you identify how to achieve work-life balance.

Step 1: Figure out What the Problem Is.

Ask yourself, what do you value most in your free time? Why is having work/life balance important to you specifically? The answer to this question will you help you find the main problem keeping you from happiness.

Every surveyed specialty reported some percentage of burnout. The highest burnout rates were critical care (48%), neurology (48%), family medicine (47%), OB-GYN (46%), internal medicine (46%), emergency medicine (45%) and radiology (45%). The lowest rates of burnout were plastic surgeons (23%), dermatologists (32%), pathologists (32%) and ophthalmologists (33%). There has been shown to be a correlation between a decrease in satisfaction with work-life balance and an increase in burnout symptoms.

nomad health burn out stats [Source: Medscape]

As the clinician shortage continues to grow, the demand for doctor’s time and availability will also increase -- meaning burnout will continue to get worse.

To combat the symptoms of burnout and help doctors achieve work-life balance, it’s important to understand the three cardinal symptoms of burnout: exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of efficacy. Ask yourself these two types of questions:

Physical Symptoms

  • Do you feel tired and drained most of the time, even if you’re getting an adequate amount of rest?
  • Has your appetite changed? Do you have frequent headaches or pains?
  • Do you feel a loss of motivation in your work or a detachment from your patients?

Non-Physical Symptoms

  • Do you find yourself missing important life events in friends and families lives?
  • Do you have feelings of being overworked or overwhelmed?
  • Do you feel like you have adequate free time for leisurely activities or other passions?

And finally the biggest question you should be asking yourself helps evaluate your overall mental state: Are you happy?

If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s time to move to step two.

Step 2: Determine the Root Cause of the Problem.

Just as the cause of everyone’s sickness is different, the root cause of why you’re feeling burned out will be unique as well. Ask yourself a few questions to figure out what it is that’s causing you to feel unbalanced. Do any of these apply to you?

  1. Your hours per day are too long.
  2. Your patients per day are too high.
  3. You’re spending more time doing clerical work than seeing patients.
  4. You don’t have the autonomy to make decisions about your schedule or volume.
  5. Electronic health record requirements are time-consuming.
  6. Your shifts are too many consecutive days in a row.
  7. Your hospital doesn't have enough doctors to cover patient volume.
  8. Your boss has not given you adequate vacation time.

Do you relate to any of these sentiments? Even if you do, do you still find that you push yourself to complete everything regardless of how much time it takes? Burnout-inducing stress is often compounded by the perfectionist qualities of many doctors.

By figuring out what’s contributing to your burnout, you can move onto step three better informed.

Step 3: Prescribe a Treatment to Help Your Patient -- You!

Now that you know what you need, it’s time to make a plan to do it! We think this quote from Johns Hopkins Medicine sums up the importance of balance: “Identify what’s most meaningful to you in your work. Research [...] indicates that spending at least 20 percent of your work life on the things that matter most to you is critical to avoiding burnout."

  • Consider locums and telehealth work. Having the freedom to choose your own schedule or even work from home is one of the driving reasons doctors choose to do locums or telehealth work. These opportunities give you the flexibility of not having a boss and let you spend more time at home and doing what matters to you. It's also one of the main reasons doctors like you join Nomad, click here to explore the locums and telehealth opportunities on the platform.

  • Find a schedule that works for you. Talk to your boss. It may be time for a schedule change. Apps like TimeTune for Android and ATracker for iOS follow your routines so you can see exactly how much time you’re spending on specific tasks. The results may show you exactly what needs to change.

  • Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat right, take care of your own medical needs, recognize the meaning in your work and build resilience. Hobbies and relationships are also critical for taking care of your mental health. Use an app like Aaptiv to take care of your physical health and an app like Headspace to help manage your mental health.

  • Don't stay static. Make sure you feel like you’re always growing. Keep reinventing yourself. Periodically reassess what motivates you at work and identify ways to reshape your work around these tasks. Continually create new challenges to keep the work fresh.

  • Take advantage of digital tools that can help relieve stress. Keeping track of your mood on a daily basis can help identify patterns in how you’re feeling. Using a good old-fashioned journal is a great option, but there are also apps like Pacifica which provide a place to keep track of your mood and goals while also providing relaxation techniques and a community for you to reach out to if you need support.

  • Make time for the things that matter to you. We know you're already trying to achieve this, but make sure you truly are prioritizing what matters to you the most. 46% of doctors find that talking with friends and family helps copy with burnout and 42% find that sleep is the best method. Regardless of what method works best for you, find time for the priorities that are actually worth prioritizing.

Doctor burnout is a serious issue. Doctors have extremely high rates of suicide and depression, higher than men or women in the general population but not nearly as widely reported.

The Coalition for Physician Well-Being has a number of resources to read more about burnout as well as a community to talk with other doctors about what you’re experiencing. They have branches in many hospitals around the country, but even if they don’t have a group near you, they have a phone number available for you to talk with someone about how you’re feeling. Discussing burnout shouldn’t be considered taboo - sometimes just having someone to talk to can make all the difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

And of course, Nomad is here to help you find jobs that can help you lead a life with more balance as well. We want the best for doctors. By creating a treatment plan for finding work-life balance, you can start taking care of the most important patient in your life: yourself.


The Nomad Team

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