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When Efforts for Physician Work-Life Balance Fall Through


Nothing can be more frustrating for a physician than arranging her life to squeeze in "me-time" and then something unexpected comes up.

One of my friends who recently exchanged her full-time job for a very part-time job did so for many reasons, not the least of which was the pursuit of work-life balance. Recently we were discussing her plans to start an exercise class. She elected a crack-of-dawn time slot, which boggled my mind given her (seemingly) endless hours to exercise while the kids are in school. However, her life remains full and busy and this was the best time for her to fit in a class.

Nothing can be more frustrating than arranging your life for that elusive “me-time” in which you exercise, take a bath, read a book, or paint your toenails, only to find that that time is vulnerable to the other demands that cannot be postponed. 

There is mom guilt about working all day only to extend your child’s time in after-school care or babysitting so you can do something as selfish as exercise. Or you find that at the end of the day, you’ve spent all of your extra time and energy on a last-minute school project, an unanticipated trip to the orthodontist, and a swing by Walmart for the supplies to complete the aforementioned school project.  What happened?

Balancing my professional demands somehow gives me a better perspective on how to prioritize things. When I’m running behind in clinic, I can still narrow my focus to the patient who is having an acute COPD exacerbation and requires hospitalization. I recognize that there are times when things are coming too fast and frequent at me and I need to take some time to think through a difficult clinical case. And, I recognize when a clinical scenario requires the assistance of a specialty colleague. I don’t know if it is easier to draw these lines at work because my work is less personal, because my limits feel more finite, or because despite all the bad habits I’ve learned in medical education, I’ve still been taught to triage, consult, and think.

I need to remind all my readers out there, just like I need you to remind me, that it is not selfish to exercise, take down time, sleep, or obey the physiologic laws of the universe which require rest and food and quiet.  It can be so difficult to do those things we know we need but which are hard to prioritize.  One way you know when you’re not doing it well is the rise of frustration you feel, perhaps somewhat overblown to the situation at hand, when a plan is disrupted.

Just like at work, I need to be smart about how I "work" at home. As an introvert, I will get downright grumpy if I don’t have some time by myself every day. When I still have a half-dozen charts to finish at the end of a long day in clinic, it is not selfish for me to ask my husband to put the kids to bed so I can finish. And, things like exercise and warm baths and chats with girlfriends? All important, all necessary, and none of them selfish.

I hope that you can find an improved ability to triage at home, consult with your colleagues (your spouse), and take the time you need to be the best at-home person you can be.

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