The Administrator’s Desk: Finding Your Peace During the Workday

May 1, 2007

Our monthly column just for practice administrators. This issue: Techniques for decompressing.


It’s 9 a.m. and you’ve already posted charges to patient accounts, run budget projections for a meeting at noon, and devised a work-around plan for the phone system that just went down - again. You quickly check your Blackberry before you talk to an unhappy patient who is threatening to leave. Amid the morning frenzy, however, you can’t shake the feeling that there’s something you forgot.

Oh, right: You haven’t stopped to breathe.

When your job includes the financial survival of a practice, it’s hard to find time to unwind. Yet failure to do so can have dire consequences. Job-related stress costs American businesses some $300 billion a year, according to the American Institute of Stress. Contributing factors include increased employee healthcare expenditures, mistakes on the job, and the higher costs of retention and recruiting, since overworked employees have higher turnover.

Even worse, failure to cope can literally prove fatal. A study by psychology professor Brooks Gump at the State University of New York at Oswego found middle-aged men at risk for coronary heart disease who took an annual vacation were 32 percent less likely to die than those who never took a vacation. Women benefit equally. A 1992 report by the Framingham Heart Study at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found women who rarely took vacations (no more than once every six years) were eight times as likely to develop coronary heart disease as their counterparts who vacationed twice a year or more.

“As Americans, we are all brought up with a strong work ethic, but over the last 15 or 20 years that ethic has been warped into overwork, and people don’t know when to stop anymore,” says Joe Robinson, a life coach in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of “Work to Live.” “We are geared for output these days, to the exclusion of friends, family, and inner health.”

Not sure how to let go? Try these easy tricks:

Just say no. Part of the reason employees today are so overworked is that they don’t know how to set boundaries. When you’re overextended, say so. Learn to delegate. “You can’t do everything yourself,” says Becke Umberger, manager of a two-physician interventional cardiology practice in Alliance, Ohio. For example, you might consider designating a nurse responsible for ensuring that workplace safety regulations are met.

“Start them off with smaller jobs and see how they handle it, and then move onto bigger projects,” says Umberger, also an adjunct professor of medical assisting technology at a local college. “If they’re intelligent, empowered employees, they’re probably going to do a good job.”

Build in breaks. Robinson notes practice administrators should build time into their schedule for five- to 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon. “These are energy opportunities,” he notes. “Play some music that lifts your spirits, take a walk around the block, or plan your weekend. Anything that helps change the subject and shift your mood so you come back more refreshed.” That includes leaving the office for lunch. “I think people are crazy to stay at their desks,” says Gina Humphries, certified medical manager and office manager at Virginia-based Waynesboro Pediatrics. “At the very least, I’ll go home for a little while to spend time with my dogs.”

Leave work at work. Much of keeping job stress under control, of course, is learning to leave it at the office. “The line between work and home has become blurred,” says Robinson. “We don’t know when to stop, and we start getting anxious when we’re not getting stuff done. We take productivity compulsion home with us.” Humphries agrees: “I’ve learned not to take it home because I can’t do anything about it there anyway, and I just end up stewing about it all night.”

Break your Crackberry addiction. Hand-held wireless devices are great. They let you connect to the Internet, check your e-mail, and receive phone calls and text messages from virtually anywhere in the world. Trouble is, you’re never off the clock. “Job stress is egged on by all the instant communication we have today,” says Robinson. “It can become a very compulsive behavior, and it’s not just the bosses doing this to us. It’s our need to be needed.” His advice: Unless contact is absolutely necessary, turn off your pagers and phones when you’re not at work.

Get away. When it comes to clearing your head, there’s just no substitute for taking time off. Week-long vacations at least once a year are critical, but don’t forget to plan more frequent, shorter getaways, too - even if your budget keeps you at home. For Umberger, a warm weekend forecast means a three-day road trip. “When I took this job, I told my boss that if there’s a nice Friday coming up and not much going on, I wouldn’t be there,” she says. “My husband and I ride Harley Davidsons for recreation.” Their last three-day trip took them across Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, and Nevada. “As long as I’m not leaving work undone, [my physicians] are great with it,” she says. “You have to have a family life outside of the office.”

Shelly K. Schwartz is a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., who has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNN/Money.com, Bankrate.com, and Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of
Physicians Practice.