I am probably the wrong person to write on this topic because I think work/life balance is a myth. My premise is that they are perceived as opposite sides of the scale and work against each other. The implication is that the two can’t be mixed and that you can’t have a full life while at work and that your work can't be part of your life. Personally, I think the idea of work/life balance takes on a victim-type mentality and suggests these are things beyond our control or no fault of our own. I think this is where people get confused. In my experience, most people who are out of balance are so because of choices they have made, not because of what's been done to them.
We have chosen to live a surgeon’s life. And, that means sacrifices by us, and our families, for the good of our patients. This is part of the deal we have made with society. These sacrifices need not control your life; but they are a part of your life. Your job is to manage them to meet the needs of your patients and your family. This requires a few things. First, you have to be organized and second, you need help (i.e., both work and life are team sports). A few examples might help further explain.
Most of us are very good at organizing teams—we run rounds, we coordinate care in the operating room, we lead complicated resuscitations. And then somehow, we become completely helpless when it comes to controlling the rest of our calendar. Be thoughtful about what you say “yes” to as well as when you say “no.” Your senior partner or chief should actively help you with these choices. If you’re asked to do a time consuming task that really doesn’t help you or your group, they should step in and decline for you. They should be as protective with your time as they are with their own. Also, you have to start from Day One protecting your time.
I have several different color-coded schedules on my calendar, each with a particular meaning for my administrative assistant. For example, when my kids were in school, the minute their band or sports schedules came out, that information immediately went onto to a schedule indicating I was not available for call that night.
When you get a random work assignment (i.e., reviewing data for your practice plan or writing a letter of recommendation for a medical student) block out an hour on your calendar for these tasks. This will serve as a reminder to yourself, as well as will let your administrative assistant know that you are busy. Schedule time to answer e-mails and other mundane things you have to do. It’s also important that you schedule time for your family and personal life. I don’t mean blocking off an hour or two here or there. I’m referring to meaningful time—entire weekends off, vacation time, and the random day to go home at noon and just relax. And finally, schedule time for yourself and your passions, whether that’s family time, going to the gym, a hobby, or volunteering.
Teamwork is crucial and I have a great group at work. I love working with my partners. We have a strong culture that values taking care of patients, helping each other, educating residents and fellows, and serving the department/institution. This did not happen by chance—we pay attention to who joins us and how. A few months ago, I goofed up my schedule and realized I was on call in a couple of days when I was heading out of town. I sent a text to all of my partners and within minutes received three replies—“I got it,” “I can do it,” and “I’ve got it covered.” All of these came without even asking me to pay them back, which I did, of course, to show my gratitude. This type of teamwork and camaraderie is priceless. That’s why it’s imperative that you find a practice environment that meets your personality and needs.
Teamwork extends to home as well. Most of us need a strong support system outside of work. My spouse is unbelievably supportive—and I have tried my best to recognize and respect this assistance. My children have always known that the work I do is important. As an aside, I’ve always understood that while what I do is important, that doesn’t make me important. What makes us important is how we treat people in our day-to-day lives; our families, our patients, our partners, the OR transport orderly, etc. Therefore, it’s important to engage your family in your work and have them stop by the office from time to time, have social events, show them letters from grateful patients, etc.
A surgeon’s life comes with many benefits. My family has met some incredible people, had great vacations, and lots of adventures. They understand the value of human lives, hard work, and respect. They understand sacrifice and the value of service. These things are invaluable. Yes, your family will make sacrifices. I did miss a few lacrosse matches and band concerts in high school —but not many. And when I was there, I was there. I wasn’t answering calls or checking e-mails. I was there. And they notice. When you’re with family (or patients), it’s important to do what you are doing. They know if you are distracted or really somewhere else.
The goal is not to have work/life balance; the goal is to have a balanced life. And to do that, you have to be an authentic person at all times. You can’t be one person at home and a different person at work—this takes too much energy. Be who you are. Integrate your life—make work part of your life and have a life at work. A happy, healthy, whole person is the best surgeon for their patients.