The Secret to Attaining Work-Life Balance

By: Jackson Physician Search
November 9, 2023 by
MedGeo Ventures, Lindsay Thomas
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As the physician shortage worsens, healthcare administrators are increasingly aware of the need to improve physician retention rates. While multiple factors impact physician retention, no one disputes the role of work-life balance in keeping physicians satisfied (and more likely to stay) in their jobs. In fact, the lack of work-life balance is a commonly reported reason for physicians to leave their jobs. 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–even if it meant lower compensation. According to Doximity’s 2023 Physician Compensation Report, 71% of survey respondents said they would be willing to accept or have already accepted lower compensation in exchange for improved work-life balance or more autonomy.

The pandemic certainly played a part in shining a light on work-life balance, but generational differences are also shaping expectations around work-life balance. Younger physicians tend to prioritize mental health and recognize the critical role of work-life balance in maintaining it.

Even as the desire for work-life balance increases, it remains elusive for many physicians. So you may be surprised when I tell you that the first step and possibly “the secret” to attaining work-life balance is first knowing what work-life balance looks like for you and then articulating your needs to your employer or potential employer. Keep reading for the details.

What Does Work-Life Balance Mean to You?

Despite all the talk about work-life balance, the term itself is broad and can be interpreted to mean different things to different people. Employers often equate a flexible schedule with a positive work-life balance. According to an April MGMA Stat poll, 47% of medical practices added flexible or part-time physician roles to their staffing plans in the past year. One primary reason for implementing these roles was to improve physicians’ work-life balance.

However, even flexibility is ambiguous. What does an ideal flexible schedule look like for you? Many organizations now offer a four-day work week, but other options might be a five-day week with shortened hours. Maybe it’s seven days on, seven off, or three weeks per month. Employers offering “flexibility” are typically open to requests like these, so know what is ideal for you and ask for it.

Of course, a flexible schedule is just one of many factors contributing to physicians’ overall work-life balance. Consider how other aspects of the physician job might impact work-life balance. It’s not unusual to request reduced time on call, lower patient volume, designated administrative time (possibly from home), or a more generous allotment of vacation days.

Articulating Work-Life Balance Needs to a Current Employer

Knowing what you want is a critical first step, but asking for it can be daunting. After all, you didn’t get where you are by backing away from hard work, so requesting less of it can feel like failure, though this is most certainly not the case. Physicians are reporting burnout at higher levels every year. If you take steps to improve your work-life balance now, you are more likely to remain in the profession, which benefits not only your employer but your community as well.

When you talk to your supervisor about your proposed changes, be clear about your circumstances and reasons for wanting the change. If your family life requires more of you right now, it’s okay to be transparent about that! Or perhaps you are having symptoms of burnout and feel these changes can help you stay engaged in your work. Employers want engaged physicians who are satisfied with their jobs, so if possible, your employer will likely try to make your requests work.

Evaluating a Potential Employer for Work-Life Balance

Of course, some organizations will not be willing or able to work with your requests, and in that case, you may decide to start a new physician job search. How do you know if your potential employer practices what they preach regarding work-life balance? I advise candidates to ask to speak to a physician peer to understand expectations around schedules, call commitments, time off, and the general attitudes toward work-life balance. 

As you get further into the recruitment process, it’s essential to talk about what you hope to find in terms of work-life balance. Be transparent about your circumstances, and don’t hesitate to ask for what you want. That said, you may want to prioritize those wants and know which ones are must-haves versus nice-to-haves.

For example, you may find an ideal rural opportunity with low patient volume and flexible scheduling; however, low staffing levels require you to be on call more than you’d like. In this case, talk to one of the physicians currently taking call to gauge how much of a burden the typical night or weekend is. In smaller communities, being on call may not require as much of you as being on call in a larger city or suburb. If a physician peer confirms this to be true, perhaps you decide that, under those circumstances, you are willing to take more frequent call than you had initially hoped to find. Bottom line–talk to your potential colleagues to gain an understanding of what a typical day at the organization looks like.

Work-life balance is attainable for physicians if they know what they want and can articulate it with employers. Most organizations recognize that physicians need balance to provide quality care over a full career, so leaders are motivated to help you find solutions. On the other hand, if your current employer does not share your work-life balance priority, it may be time to search for a new physician job. 

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