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Striking the Right Physician Work/Life Balance

Feeling chronically overwhelmed? The cause may not be your job, but how you do it. To cut yourself some slack, try these tips.

If you can’t get out of bed in the morning or out of the office at night, you may need a different job. But more likely, you just need different work habits. Our firm hears from hundreds of physicians each year who are struggling to keep their work life in order. Time and again, we find ourselves offering this advice:

Pick your priorities, then do what’s important first

When a doctor tells us that he is suffering from burnout, we ask him to list his responsibilities in order of importance. A typical list: serving on a hospital committee, doing e-charts, and seeing patients.

Thinking our request is unclear, we reply, "But what’s most important on your list? "The response: It’s all important!"

No, it’s not. As a practicing physician, you have only three top priorities: You need to see patients. You need to do charts. And you need to prevent yourself from wearing out so that you can keep seeing patients and doing charts.

A doctor who treats 15 patients a day may work just as hard as one who sees 25. The difference: The doctor with the high numbers knows how to set priorities. The doctor with the low number generally tries to do it all. Yet in the end, he’s less productive and becomes overwhelmed.

Don’t be a slave to other people’s schedules

Not every patient must be seen today. Give your advanced practice provider and care team instructions on which types of patients should receive priority.

Schedule meetings with suppliers, salespeople, and other non-patients at your convenience, not theirs. Then set strict limits for the meeting: "I can give you 10 minutes next Thursday at noon. But at 12:10, I’ll have to go."

If you’re bored, do something to recharge your interest

We hear many doctors complain of terminal ennui. Family medicine physicians and internists may be sick of performing lumps-and-bumps medicine day after day. Cardiologists swear that if they monitor one more treadmill test, they’ll go insane. Psychiatrists cringe at having to hear patients gripe about the raw deals they got as kids.

The antidote isn’t necessarily a new job: In two or three years, any job will become routine. First, try making the position you already have more interesting. An internist who wants a more stimulating job might consider concentrating on hospital work. A family medicine physician who loves EHRs can become the group’s technology guru. Take a CME course to learn a new skill. Challenge yourself, and the boring parts of your job will be easier to bear.

If your job is too stressful, renegotiate your workload

If the job really is to blame for your burnout – you can’t meet your daily patient quota or your on-call schedule is brutal – ask for the position to be restructured so that it’s less stressful. Your employer has every reason to work with you. Replacing a good doctor is expensive, and physician burnout can lead to clinical errors, greater malpractice risks, high absenteeism, poor rapport with patients, and low morale.

But think hard before you reduce your responsibilities. Many physicians are dismayed to find their compensation proportionately reduced. If you want to work fewer hours, expect to take a financial hit.

Find a buddy you trust, and blow off steam

Choose a confidant from your colleagues with whom you can share feelings comfortably, and open up to him or her. It’s not advice you’re seeking so much as the opportunity to blow off steam and hear yourself talk before a willing audience. Giving voice to pent-up emotions can lower stress.

Take time for regular exercise

Candidates for burnout tend to be seriously out of shape. Maybe you’ve been promising yourself to buy a pair of running shoes, join a gym, or hire a personal trainer, but you keep putting it off. If your stress level is stratospheric, however, it’s time to act. Incorporate some sort of regular physical activity into your life. This will help you fell better, be mellower, and have more energy. That’s how to keep from burning out.