Is there such a thing as a good work-life balance?

doctor burnout

Hitting the right note between career satisfaction and development, as well as a contented and happy home life can be extremely tricky to navigate for any working professional, let alone doctors. Consultant psychiatrist Emma Sedgwick defines the work-life balance as “ensuring work doesn’t take up more of your life than you want it to.” This is particularly valid for doctors, who record above average levels of stress – 28% compared with 18% for other career paths. With mental health studies quoting long hours, high workloads and work pressure as impacting on a doctor’s personal life, it is easy to spot why burnout may become a problem, with one in 15 doctors reported as having a problem with drugs or alcohol at some point in their lives.

Many doctors struggle to get this finely tuned balance right, with Sedgwick commenting that this is due to the profession being viewed as a ‘vocation’ and therefore not just a job. There is also an internal conflict for doctors, between caring for their patients and caring for themselves. Sara Hedderwick, a consultant from Belfast Health and Social Care Trust explains “There’s always more that can be done for patients and the difficulty is you feel you’re not doing enough – but you also need to make sure your own health doesn’t suffer.”

Managing home time

Personal commitments just muddy the waters further as this can create even more of a juggling act for doctors to manage. Some doctors for example may act as carers for elderly relatives or children with disabilities, so in a sense they are never ‘off duty’, even when at home.

There are ways to attempt to lessen the toll, with some experts suggesting general practice or locum work instead of a hospital specialty. Being a GP means you are self employed and therefore have greater flexibility, whilst locuming can also provide you with the power to dictate your own working hours and schedule. Junior doctors in particular may find working up the medical ladder more pressuring, as they switch between working and studying as well as maintaining any home life commitments. Sedgwick continues “They can be exhausted, and can’t spend enough time with their friends and family because they have to get the books out to study.”

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Beryl De Souza, honorary secretary of the Medical Women’s Federation, also comments on the balancing act, saying that it carries on even after doctors have qualified. “Medicine is very demanding as in addition to fulfilling clinical duties there are other facets to a doctor’s work, such as teaching, management and leadership roles, which are not always possible to do within usual working hours and can encroach on their life outside work. Plus there are family commitments so it can be difficult to juggle all of these things.”

Career paths

Having to choose a specialty so early on in a doctor’s career can also cause complications later down the line, as what a doctor opts for now, may not suit them later on in life. “It’s tough having to make specialty choices about what you want to do for the rest of your life as an F2, as those choices may not correspond to having a good work-life balance later on,” Sedgwick expands. This could mean that doctors miss out on family time, pursuing hobbies and fulfilling personal ambitions.

Despite all this, maintaining a well balanced work-life ratio should be even more important to doctors as they are at higher risk than the general population of developing stress related problems and depression, as well as increased odds of committing suicide. Many doctors record experiencing ‘burnout’, where they feel exhausted and find themselves lacking interest in work. Sedgwick explains “I think ‘burnout’ definitely exists. It’s when doctors get to the point where the whole prospect of going into work is intruding on the rest of their life, not just during the week or on a Sunday, but on a Saturday when they start thinking about work and don’t want to go back into work.”

Signs of burnout:

  • Feeling stressed both in and out of work
  • Suffering from poor physical or mental health
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Struggling with relationships without feeling there is time to invest in them

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Where can doctors get help?

  • BMA’s Counselling and Doctor Advice Service
  • During their appraisal

How can doctors combat burnout?

  • Try a different area of medicine, or one that uses more flexible working, such as general practice or locum work
  • Moving abroad either permanently or temporarily is ideal for a change of scenery
  • Take up charity work
  • Get involved in medical politics
  • Cultivate a new hobby
  • Take a new exercise class
  • Have supportive friends, family and colleagues

There is no definitive answer about how to deal or cope with burnout and creating a work-life balance; it is all about the individual in question and what they feel comfortable with. However, it is a topic doctors need to revisit on a regular basis, as needs, wishes and requirements are always changing and updating.