Physicians Need Downtime to Improve Productivity

August 6, 2013

Rest for both body and mind is a crucial part of work-life balance for doctors. It makes us more productive, not less.

After a weekend spent on family reunion activities, which mainly involved late nights and lots of sugar, my husband, kids, and I needed a break. We took a “rain” day today (even though it didn’t rain) and spent the time lounging around, watching a movie, and napping. One of my friends called and confessed that her family, too, was having a lazy day after a hectic weekend. She reported feeling guilty (a feeling I share) about not doing anything productive.

I think it is a fault of our society that we equate rest with being lazy, unproductive, or deficient. It is necessary to rest. Those of us in medicine recognize the need to rest in order to recover from everything from a cold to a surgery. Decreased sleep is associated with obesity and decreased life expectancy, diminished concentration, and increased risk of diabetes. Clearly we need it, so why is it so difficult to embrace?

We think highly of ourselves and others when we are productive, get things accomplished, spend our time efficiently. In work and in life, this means seeing more patients, attending more events, reading a medical journal while running on the treadmill (bonus points for doing both things at once), texting while talking, finishing office notes while in bed, and so on. No one admires you for getting eight hours of sleep, although they may envy you. 

Rest for both body and mind is a crucial part of work-life balance. In trying to find balance, we often run harder and further trying to get everything done and keep everyone happy. Rest feels like a guilty pleasure and is often relegated to low-priority status. It’s like my patients caught in the endless loop of anxiety-insomnia-caffeine addiction. The anxiety gives them insomnia so they drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake, which in turn makes their anxiety and insomnia worse and so on. It’s hard to jump off that merry-go-round and start by getting rest. I am amazed by the lengths to which some people go to avoid just getting the sleep their body is biologically programmed to require.

How can we model this for our families and our patients? Well, of course, we need to actually get rest. We need to seek to do less. It needs to be intentional, deliberate, and purposeful. It feels so counter-cultural (which it probably is) and self-indulgent (which it definitely is not). My challenge to you this week is to rest. Do less. Lounge around more. Have a rain day regardless of the weather. Demonstrate relaxation to your spouse, your kids, your staff and your patients. Enjoy this very not-guilty pleasure.