It’s no wonder work-life balance has become a hot topic in recent years. Three-quarters of working Americans have experienced burnout at their jobs, and a recent Harvard report called physician burnout a public health crisis. Physician work-life balance isn’t a luxury; it’s necessary for providers and their patients. 

Tips for improving physician work-life balance

There are many ways to improve your balance between personal and professional activities. Here are six tips for improving physician work-life balance, inspired by practicing doctors.

1) Build in reflexivity

Physician work-life balance is impossible if you’re on autopilot. Enough outside forces are vying for your attention that the default mode of practicing medicine will be a steady drift toward burnout. 

To keep perspective, you need to build in reflexivity, meaning time to question your assumptions and increase self-awareness. Doing this requires putting some mental and emotional space between yourself and your job. 

If you don’t already have a reflexive practice, try this one, inspired by research published in the Harvard Business Review. Once a month, spend 30 minutes writing to reflect on the following questions: 

  • What are the sources of stress in my personal and professional life?
  • What is out of balance?
  • How are the answers to the first two questions affecting my work as a physician?
  • How are the answers to the first two questions affecting my personal life?
  • What is my foremost priority?
  • What am I sacrificing for that priority?

After stepping back to reflect, commit to taking 1-3 specific actions in the next week.

2) Practice saying ‘no’

How full is your calendar? And how essential are the items on that calendar? Here’s a quick way to check: Ask yourself, “If I skipped this meeting, would anything terrible happen?”

Many physicians are eager to please, and medical training encourages setting aside your needs, digging deeper, and giving more. While selflessness is admirable, you can’t contribute from an empty tank. 

Become skilled at saying ‘no’ quickly and ‘yes’ slowly. If this thought scares you, try it first in a low-stakes setting. “No, I can’t make that party next weekend.” “No, I don’t want to sit on that committee.” Time is your most precious resource, so be selective about where you invest it. 

3) Prioritize wellbeing, nutrition, and sleep

You’ve heard it before: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Yet doctors are notoriously bad at prioritizing their health. 

Schedule in advance to incorporate routine well-visits, labs, vaccinations, and dental and eye care. Make a plan to make healthy meal choices the default rather than the exception. Use your lunch breaks to step away from the computer and take a 15-minute walk or connect with a colleague. 

Remember that research has linked poor sleep to several chronic diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Physician work-life balance begins with healthy sleep habits. 

4) Ditch the guilt

Speaking of sleep, it’s hard to prioritize when you feel guilty about doing less. The thought “I should be doing more” is one of the biggest barriers to work-life balance. Medical professionals are indoctrinated in a culture of self-sacrifice that makes this tendency challenging got unlearn. 

Here’s a word of advice from Mehvish Khan, MD, writing on work-life balance as a physician and mother

“Consciously decide to stop worrying when choosing between two things. You cannot physically be at two different places at once. We have different individual responsibilities. As a doctor, my role is to see patients and provide a service. Similarly, as a mother, I have many vital responsibilities to fulfill in that role. Being hounded by guilt is a disservice to every party involved.”

5) Optimize your EHR workflow

The average U.S. doctor spends over 15 hours weekly on paperwork and administrative tasks, including many hours in the EHR. Physician work-life balance means finishing clinical notes at the clinic, but this is easier said than done. 

Technology is constantly changing, and your EHR workflow should too. Set aside regular time to review what’s working and where you could be more efficient. Use EHR functions like templates. Figure out instant mobile dictation and use it to complete your notes in the exam room. Let go of perfection. Time yourself and commit to completing documentation faster. 

6) Take a technology sabbath

Optimize your technology at work, but take a break when you’re home. Once a week, set aside an internet-free time or ‘technology sabbath.’ 

Your technology sabbath could be as short as an hour or as long as a day. But honor it by putting away your smartphone, laptop, or tablet for a pre-defined period. Our connected devices are now medical tools, and you’re just a click away from a work email, text, or task whenever you’re online.

Use the tech-free time to set aside work-related stressors and get outside or enjoy face-to-face social time.

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