Seven Principles that Can Help Stressed Out Physicians

Next time you feel like your sense of balance is spiraling out of control, remember these seven principles.

Physicians are busy. They often have little time for friends and family, have no time for the community, and seldom feel as though they have covered all their bases. Their lives have way too much in common with a hamster in a wheel.

Still, there are some things physicians can do to experience improved work-life balance. Here are seven principles to keep in mind next time you feel like your sense of balance is spiraling out of control:

1. Acknowledge and accept the fact that time is limited and there is no way to create more. This fact is both mind-numbingly obvious and generally ignored. Time can be made more productive but it cannot be increased, and there are upper limits on productivity.

2. Accept the fact that there will never be enough time.  The only people who never run out of time are lethargic and unimaginative, the antithesis of most physicians. Some tasks and interests have to be abandoned forever, while others will simply need to wait their turn.

3. Be intentional about the use of time, and be aware that it involves choices as well as decisions. Deciding to do something is deciding not to do something else. The decision is a choice, a corollary to the principle that two things cannot concurrently occupy the same space. The challenge is to distinguish between the urgent and the important, as well as the important and the less important. Without intention, priorities tend to be clear only in retrospect when different action is impossible.

4. Abandon guilt about what is not getting done. If you are making good use of your time and investing it in what is most important to you, there is no reason to feel guilty. You may wish you could do it all, but you must realize you bear no responsibility for an immutable law of nature.

5. Seek alternate resources. Nowhere is it written that you must do everything. If something essential is not getting done, find a way to delegate it.

6. Refuse to be bullied. This is particularly difficult because many physicians have so routinely been bullied during their training. When someone demands more research, more revenue, more whatever than is reasonably possible, push back and negotiate the demands. (I am not oblivious to the fact that this may involve finding another job or practice. You need to weigh the pros and cons.)

7. Do not engage in self-bullying. This kind of bullying may be the most common. Physicians have a tendency to be driven, and to be offended at the notion that they must make trade-offs. Unchecked, it leads to serious over-commitment, stress and, eventually, burnout.

Now that you have read the above, the key is applying these principles to your daily life. To help, I've provided an example below. Take a look, while it may not apply directly to you, it will get you thinking about some ways you may be able to improve your own work-life balance.

To help other physicians identify similar opportunities, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Example: Dr. Jones is a mid-30s cardiologist with a wife and three small children. He loves soccer and biking. The family is anxious to retire its debt, build its dream home, and live the life they have been planning since the beginning of medical school. At present, Dr. Jones is feeling very stressed.

In order to generate the revenue that will generate the income he needs and feels he deserves, he needs to see about 40 patients a day. The senior partners in the practice refuse to hire a nonphysician provider for him until his numbers are up, and they give him the least experienced medical assistants. There is no way Dr. Jones can keep his schedule on track and do the business development he needs to do to increase his volumes.

His wife is very frustrated, and she lets him know it. She was moderately OK with being broke in school and even training, but she is ready for the struggle to be over. She is also tired of being a single parent and worried that the children do not have enough time with their father. Both money and time with the children are a concern for Dr. Jones, too. He also laments his lack of exercise.

He is constantly pedaling as fast as he can but no one is happy. Things do not seem to be getting better.

Based upon the seven principles above, what can he do?