Work-Life Balance, or Something Else?

Owen Kahn

By Owen Kahn, MD

Now that I am a resident physician, the difficulty of achieving a work-life balance has been pushed to the extreme, as many of you in health care fields have experienced or will. In dark times, during stretches when my schedule keeps me at the hospital every day for long hours, I fantasize about a future time when I won’t be as busy:

“When I’m an attending, things will be better and I’ll be happy.”

Then, I recall similar thoughts I had as a student in medical school. We were either studying, endlessly it seemed, or rotating from site to site, where we were always the least-experienced team member around. Stress, frustration and burnout were commonplace. We often fantasized about a future time when we wouldn’t be as busy:

“I can’t wait to graduate and be a resident. Maybe I’ll be happy then.”

I find myself in a familiar spot, with the same feelings, once again with unrealistic expectations of the future.

Granted, some things already are or will be better. As we medical professionals become more experienced and confident in our positions, the work itself becomes easier and each day stresses us less. Completing our training also allows us to reach our financial potential. However, attendings, supervisors, practitioners, all those who have reached the peaks of their careers, are usually no less busy than we are. Once training concludes, the safeguards put in place to protect trainees from overwork and burnout disappear. Unprotected, we acquire new professional roles and responsibilities as well as new personal roles and responsibilities as we start families.

At this time, I am still a resident-in-training, so I cannot speak from experience. But I hypothesize that my life will never necessarily get easier. Instead, it will likely become harder and more complicated. And that is okay. Accepting that life is and will be complicated permits us to prepare for it effectively. To best prepare, we need to be capable of successfully uniting work and life–now; we need to be able to find happiness in and outside of work–now. Because, just as our lives will become more complicated, the linkage between personal and professional lives will become more tenuous. Its maintenance is a skill and an art, rather than a science. We must learn and practice it as trainees so that we may be consummate professionals when we graduate, just as we learn and practice our individual disciplines of medicine, nursing, or pharmacy, among others.

I dislike the phrase work-life balance. Balance implies that two elements are at odds, opposing each other from different ends of a spectrum. Instead, our professional and personal lives must co-exist in a healthy relationship. Thus, I consider work-life union to be a more appropriate phrase. And we all need to be better at it.

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