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Paradigm Shift for Physician Work-Life Balance


Physicians should rethink the paradigm of work-life balance, by making choices that are in synchrony with their priorities and responsibilities.

Last week was "work-life balance" week leading to a variety of articles on the topic. As I read through them, I realized that I've been blogging on work-life balance for almost five years. In that time, the concepts around work-life balance have shifted. The notion of trying to balance work and life is a relatively new one and is, arguably, a benefit of our first-world economy where job security is a given for an enviable minority (like physicians). The first order is simply finding a job. Next comes financial security. Then come the niceties, of which the ability to find a balance between professional and personal obligations is one.

When I first started writing this blog, I had recently had our fourth child and was struggling with the demands of being a full-spectrum family physician in an academic practice. Things at home were fairly chaotic given the ages of my children. Things at work were also chaotic as I tried to manage research and teaching with clinical and administrative responsibilities. As my longing for some semblance of balance grew, so did my journey to find it. This blog has allowed me to explore what work-life balance means and ways in which it can be attained.

Now, five years later, the topic has changed somewhat. Most writers on the topic admit that there really is no such thing as work-life balance. It paints a picture of some type of perfect intersection between work, self, and family in which you are meeting all obligations while having a sense of satisfaction. While that is a great goal to move toward, it is (nearly) impossible to reach this state. Hence the rub. Do you throw in the towel, admit it's never going to happen, and continue to hobble through late nights, dinner on the run, and a relentless feeling that you are failing at everything? Or do you hold onto the ideal of balance and just try each day to get as close as you can?

The current thinking on work-life balance includes a third option - one in which you neither fail nor succeed at work-life balance because it doesn't exist and cannot be found. In this third option, you recognize the fallacy of trying to get it all in perfect proportion and instead consciously choose where your time and energy are spent in a thoughtful and focused way that respects your personal priorities.

I like this change in focus. Most physicians are over-achieving perfectionists who are harder on themselves than anyone else ever could be. When you add an impossible goal into the mix, the sense of failure weighs heavy. It is likely more psychologically healthy to refuse this false choice and rewrite the rules of the game. So, my challenge to my readers is to rethink the paradigm of work-life balance. Maybe even abandon the work "balance" altogether. Think instead of the choices you make tomorrow in the light of your priorities and responsibilities. Most important, be gentle with yourself.

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