According to the JPS and MGMA whitepaper, Back from Burnout: Confronting the Post-Pandemic Physician Turnover Crisis, the percentage of physicians who say they are experiencing burnout rose four points in the past year, from 61% in 2021 to 65% in 2022. Among those with burnout, 75% say their burnout has gotten worse in the past year.
The stats on burnout are grim, and healthy work-life balance continues to be an elusive yet high-priority goal of many physicians. But what exactly does work-life balance look like for physicians? Is it attainable? And what can be done at both the organizational and individual levels to improve work-life balance for physicians?
In Pursuit of the Elusive Work-Life Balance
Coming out of 2020, Jackson Physician Search recruiters noted a significant increase in the number of physicians leaving their jobs in search of a better work-life balance. The job stress created by the pandemic caused many physicians to reevaluate their professional choices and seek alternatives — a trend that appears to continue well into the third year of the pandemic. According to the 2022 JPS-MGMA study, the past year has seen 36% of physicians considering early retirement, 51% wanting to find a new employer and 41% thinking of leaving the profession altogether.
Organizational Factors Contributing to Work-Life Balance
Improved work-life balance isn’t the only reason physicians change jobs, but the term encompasses many of the specific job attributes thought to improve work-life balance, such as generous paid time off, flexible schedules, and minimal call. But it’s not just time away from work that matters; the level of stress experienced on the job also impacts a physician’s overall work-life balance. For this reason, physicians also want reduced administrative burden, equity in their workloads, and two-way communication with management.
In the aforementioned study, physicians were asked to rate the importance of 12 different factors in their professional satisfaction. Two-way communication was weighted as the most important, followed by compensation, but additional time off, reduced administrative burden, equity of workload, and reduced call were all cited as very or somewhat important by more than half of the respondents.
All these factors impact work-life balance, and yet, despite a concerted effort from many employers to improve in these areas, physicians often still feel ruled by their work. Is it just the nature of the physician’s job? Nearly half of physicians don’t think so. If we consider physician burnout a consequence of poor work-life balance, then, according to the JPS-MGMA study, 40% of physicians attribute their burnout “mostly to their employer.” On the other hand, just 19% of administrators attribute physician burnout to employers.
Individual Changes to Improve Physician Work-Life Balance
Improving work-life balance certainly requires adjustments at the organizational and perhaps industry level. However, there are also things physicians can do as individuals to increase their quality of life. While there’s no shortage of advice for physicians in this area, Dike Drummond MD, CEO and founder of TheHappyMD.com, has devoted his career to the subject. Here, we’ve noted Drummond’s top suggestions for improving your work-life balance.
- Schedule Personal Time — According to Drummond, work-life balance begins with your calendar. Just as you schedule patient appointments and department meetings on a calendar, you should also have a calendar where you schedule time for yourself, time with your kids, and dates with your partner. Look further down the road and schedule vacations you want to take and bucket list items you hope to achieve. Write it down on a calendar, and you are more likely to make it happen.
- Learn to Say “No” — Crucial to the success of this “life calendar” is assigning as much importance to it as you do your work calendar. Before accepting any new request or invitation, check both calendars to see if you are available. Practice saying “no” and moving on without guilt.
- Create a Boundary Ritual — For physicians that struggle to let go of work when the day is done, Drummond recommends establishing an activity that signals the end of your workday and the beginning of your personal time. It may just be a few deep breaths when you get in the car to drive home, or a shower and change of clothes as soon as you walk in the door. Use this ritual — whatever it is — to help you transition from your professional life to your home life.
Rethinking Physician Work-Life Balance
For some, the expectation of work-life balance is unrealistic and only adds to the pressure on physicians. The idea of “work-life integration” may be a more attainable goal. This reframing of the idea relieves the pressure to keep work and life separate from each other. Sometimes personal issues will arise at work and need to be dealt with during working hours. Likewise, sometimes work tasks will spill over into your home life. The key is to find harmony and acceptance in your role as both a physician and as a person with relationships and needs beyond your work.
Additionally, physicians should accept that at some point in their careers, during residency, for example, work will require them to give more energy and attention than they give at home. At other times, when children are young or a parent is ill, their personal lives may require more. If this is true, it is especially important to have an employer that respects physicians as people and can be flexible when circumstances require it.
Individual adjustments can improve one’s work-life balance (or integration). However, they cannot cure the systemic issues causing physician burnout. For physicians to truly experience wellness, the industry as a whole must address the root causes of burnout and make changes to improve circumstances for all physicians.
If you are among the many physicians considering a job change to improve work-life balance, reach out to the Jackson Physician Search recruitment team today to find out how we can help.