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Why physicians need work-life balance


Work-life balance is the key to staving off burnout when practicing medicine.

I really enjoy my job. I appreciate the people I get to work with and feel like the work we do really matters. That’s why I’m willing to put in extra hours and effort to ensure the job is done well. I believe physicians do the same thing. They work hard, they’re dedicated to their patients and their jobs and most love what they do. That makes putting in the extra work easy.

However, even at my busiest I don’t think I could or would average working 80+ hour weeks. I’m also not responsible for making literal life and death decisions on a daily basis. The expectations we as a society put on physicians is that they will always be there when we need them, regardless of when or where. Physicians embrace that responsibility and they are there when we need them most. This often comes at the cost of their personal lives and was a regular part of medicine for an extremely long time.

Dr. Andrew Wilner, who graduated from medical school in 1981, had this to say:

“When I entered the world of medicine, there was no such thing as physician burnout or work/life balance. It was a privilege to become a physician. The chosen few admitted to the hallowed halls of medicine expected to devote 100% of their lives to this sacred calling… as a product of that generation, the drive to excel as a physician significantly postponed my family plans, almost permanently.”

Later in his career Dr. Wilner found it was possible to have a life separate from medicine while still maintaining a successful and positive career as a neurologist while still spending time with his family.

Young physicians today have a different outlook and a recent survey by CompHealth’s parent company, CHG Healthcare, found the number one factor new physicians are looking for in a job is work-life balance. This was followed closely by work schedule and location. What makes this more interesting is that CompHealth asked a similar question in a surveyCompHealth back in 2018. Work-life balance was number one on the list as well. However, in 2018, 63% of physicians listed it as their number one factor, this year that number jumped up to 85%.

Achieving work-life balance isn’t just good for physicians it is also good for their patients and the facilities they work. Even before the pandemic provider burnout was seen as an issue that caused adverse patient reactions. Add in COVID-19 with physician burnout at an all-time high and negative patient impact is even higher.

“For as many as 50% of physicians, burnout symptoms of cynicism, exhaustion, and reduced effectiveness overshadow their personal and professional lives,” says Dr. Wilner. “Like the coronavirus, burnout has reached global epidemic levels. Responses by academic institutions, government, and private industry to systemically address the burnout epidemic are woefully inadequate.”

Burnout is often a direct result of a life out of balance. Having that time outside of work to rejuvenate and focus on family or other interests keeps physicians fresh for when they return to work. In our role of placing locum tenens physicians in temporary jobs around the country I have seen physicians that were ready to quit medicine find new life in their careers. They found that taking more control of their schedules and freeing up some time for themselves made a huge difference in their personal and professional lives. The physicians that work with us still work long, demanding hours but the difference is they are choosing when and where to work and if they need a break, they can control their schedule.

Physicians are integral parts of our community and it’s important we recognize they deserve a healthy work-life balance as much as anyone else. New physicians are making job decisions based on this need and if we want the profession to grow, we need to do whatever we can to fight burnout and promote balance in physicians’ lives.

Lisa Grabl is president of CompHealth, the nation’s largest provider of locum tenens physicians and founder of the traveling physician industry. She joined CompHealth in 2001 as a sales consultant and served in a variety of management roles prior to being named president in 2017. Lisa is passionate about building lasting relationships and helping her team members reach their highest potential.

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© National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health