How the ‘Martyr Mentality’ Affects a Physician’s Work-Life Balance

August 23, 2011

I thought I’d identified most of the barriers to achieving work-life balance. However, I recently was reintroduced to another one that can also pervade the medical community.

I thought I’d identified most of the barriers to achieving work-life balance: having a personal life, professional obligations, limited time, technological distractions, attending to your spouse’s needs in addition to your own, meeting the demands of child-rearing. However, I recently was reintroduced or reminded of another one, which unfortunately can also pervade the medical community. It’s being a martyr. 

I don’t mean this in a negative way, because often those volunteering to martyr themselves on the medical altar are doing so for the reasons that many of us went into medicine in the first place - to serve others, to alleviate suffering, to give of ourselves. We’ve learned, been taught, and experienced as part of the medical education socialization process that we are our patients’ saviors, that we owe at least as much to our colleagues as we do to our life partner, and that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. Of course, none of these lessons is true, but they can often feel true.

A medical martyr volunteers to take the extra call because, after all, someone has to do it. Or, he says okay to another double-booked patient because the patient really wants to see only him, or only can come in at a certain time, or missed an earlier appointment. We martyr ourselves by sacrificing every lunch hour in the pursuit of more patient care, research, or work. And we martyr ourselves by giving up the most important parts of our lives for things that, in all honesty, may not need to be done by us.

There is a difference between sacrifice, which I think must be willingly given at different times by all physicians, and martyrdom which, to me, implies a level of self-sacrifice that is severe enough to cause injury to ourselves. And, unfortunately, when we injure ourselves in this way, it usually ripples out to our families as well.

Sometimes things are broken - there aren’t enough appointments for all the patients clamoring to be seen or yet one more colleague has to be taken out of the call schedule, increasing the burden for those remaining. We all have and should step up to the plate on occasion to fill genuine, urgent need. And, of course, we should never place patient safety in jeopardy because of our strict adherence to some sort of predefined limit or boundary.

However, some of the things we are asked to do equate to putting bandages on larger problems. Some of these problems aren’t going to get better no matter how many bandages are placed on top of them. Sometimes these demands are revealing flaws in the system that must be addressed. Sometimes not stepping up to the plate is the right thing to do - for yourself and your family, but also in order to shed light on systemic problems that require serious attention.

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