Long hours typify the medical career. From office hours, to rounds, to procedures, and documentation—a physician’s work can become an endless list of tasks that leaves little time for life outside of practice.
In exclusive interviews with MDLinx, four doctors shared how they maintain a social life, despite the long hours that the white coat demands.
Life on hold
Cristina B. Feather, MD, MHS, is an acute care surgeon and surgical intensivist at Luminis Health, in Annapolis, MD. According to Feather, increasing demands are compromising physician work-life balance.
“The current professional climate continues to demand more of physicians clinically and administratively, further challenging the cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being of the physician workforce,” she said.
As a result, many physicians put their social lives on the back burner, Feather said.
Rhonda Mattox, MD, a psychiatrist and CEO of a mental health clinic in Little Rock, AR., agreed.
“As physicians, we spend so much time caring for others that our needs are at the bottom of the list,” Mattox said. “Sometimes our needs aren’t at the bottom of the list because they never even made the list.”
According to Tamara Chang, MD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, WA, work-life balance starts with a critical decision.
“It begins with physicians choosing to make their social life a priority,” Chang said.
After you’ve made that critical decision, proper work-life balance requires making some changes.
New habits and routines
Adjust your on-call time for some ‘me’ time
Adjust your on-call time to make time for yourself. While permanently reducing work time may be untenable, you may be able to make temporary adjustments to a hectic work schedule by taking short breaks at intervals to rejuvenate yourself.
Take up a hobby and be present in the moment
Engage in different activities and find the one you enjoy. Whether hiking, playing golf, hitting the gym, or spending time with friends, you have a broad list of hobbies to choose from. Some of these locations are perfect spots for meeting new friends who share similar interests.
At times, giving yourself a well-deserved treat like going on a vacation may be a quick fix. But at other times when you find yourself constantly overwhelmed with symptoms of exhaustion, burnout, or depression, then it’s time to prioritize self-care and ask for help.
The missing link between social life and health
According to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, physicians are less satisfied with their work-life balance due to long working hours and experience burnout at higher rates than other professionals. This is not without its consequence.
“Poor work-life balance among physicians has been associated with professional and personal consequences,” Feather said. “Dissatisfaction with a job can lead to medical errors, patient dissatisfaction, and decreased productivity. Additionally, personal ramifications can range from feelings of under-appreciation to serious mental health concerns.”
Isolation can amplify these concerns, Chang said.
“When we don’t have social connections in our lives, we are at increased risk of depression, increased health risks and death.”
People with strong social connections live longer and healthier lives compared with their isolated peers, a 2021 study suggests. The study is the result of 23 meta-analyses published between 1994 and 2021 with more than 1 million participants.
A 2017 American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine analysis concluded that social connections help people maintain healthy BMIs, keep blood sugar levels under control, boost cancer survival odds, lower CVD mortality, limit depressive symptoms, and boost overall mental health.
COVID-19 and its social impact
As a disease that thrives off proximity, COVID-19 has limited our ability to socialize. Karl Zarse, MD, is a spine, pain, and nutritional supplement specialist in Meridian, ID. He said the pandemic has been especially hard on doctors.
“The pandemic has added a whole other layer of stress,” Zarse said. “In the beginning, we were still seeing patients not knowing if this was going to get us extremely sick or even die while doing our job. Outside of family and work, many of us have lost most if not all other social interactions.”
Some may have turned to social media to connect. This also had consequences and proved a poor substitute for the real thing.
“Unfortunately, the use of social media during the pandemic, in particular, has been connected to an increased risk of anxiety and depression,” Chang said. “Social media is a way to connect, but it’s no substitute for actual meaningful connection.”
Zarse said that social media has its purposes, but doctors still need to (safely) get out and live their lives.
“One of the best ways to remedy this predicament is to center your social life around a physical activity,” he said.
Ultimately, it's physicians themselves who must advocate for their mental health and work life balance, these doctors said.
“As priorities for physicians constantly shift depending on the clinical demands of the profession, an environment that promotes awareness of hardships of a medical career and supports physicians in times of need is essential,” Feather said. “Physicians must be empowered to advocate for themselves to foster a healthy professional and personal climate.”
Furthermore, doctors can’t be expected to hold it together in public, but collapse behind closed doors when they get home.
“It's important to remember that our goal is not to be a public success and a private failure,” Mattox said. “That’s why we must revisit our priorities and align our schedule such that we prioritize what we say our goals are. Put you on your schedule and your to-do list and then treat it as if it’s equivalent to the appointment with the CEO of your organization.”
Hussenoeder FS, Bodendieck E, Conrad I. et al. Burnout and work-life balance among physicians: the role of migration background. Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology. 2021;16(1):28.
Martino J, Pegg J, Frates EP. The Connection Prescription: Using the Power of Social Interactions and the Deep Desire for Connectedness to Empower Health and Wellness. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2017; 11(6):466-475.
Mheidly N, Fares MY, Fares J. Coping With Stress and Burnout Associated With Telecommunication and Online Learning. Front. Public Health. 2020;8:574969.
Vila, J. Social Support and Longevity: Meta-Analysis-Based Evidence and Psychobiological Mechanisms. Front. Psychol. 2021; 12:717164
Zhao N, Zhou G. COVID-19 Stress and Addictive Social Media Use (SMU): Mediating Role of Active Use and Social Media Flow. Front Psychiatry. 2021;12:635546.