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Maintaining a work life balance in a career like medicine can be troublesome. As a doctor in training work can overshadow life and this is often accepted as the norm. When I ask my medic friends about this they say things like “a busy rotation means you’ll learn loads” and “that’s just the way it is”. Hearing this got me thinking about junior doctor burn out and how it might be the result of medics believing they need to be workaholics in order to be successful. At medical school a friend of mine imparted the words ‘it’s short term pain for long term gain’. Last year they were an F2 working towards specialty exams and finding it tough. I called to catch up with them one day but their phone went to voicemail. I got a text back an hour later which read:
‘Sorry just woke up… catching up on sleep after long days… done zero revision & I'm working Xmas day on call…I have no life’.
With work dominating the scales of their life it appeared all they had gained was ‘long term pain’. In the face of all this my friend was still optimistic and assured me they would find a strategy to get their life back. A few weeks later I was delighted that they had created an aptly termed ‘square approach’ strategy. This consisted of four key behaviors:
1. Tackle tiredness - 3 square meals
We are at our best when we are well fed and well rested. By making it a rule to have three meals a day my friend was fueled with energy. Every week they set aside time to plan out meals and buy healthy snacks to take to work. Preparing them in advance meant they didn’t fall into the trap of becoming a regular at the fast food drive through. The hardest bit (as a medic doing shift work) was getting enough sleep to wake in time for breakfast. The key was getting at least 7-9 hours sleep a day, something they could apply to any roster.
2. Get revision ready - Use the little squares (apps)!
Finding a regular time slot to revise is challenging with an unsociable shift pattern. We can’t carry our revision books around with us all the time but we can use our phones to their full advantage. Being an electronics buff my friend found that certain apps with question banks such as ‘onexamination’ were extremely convenient. They were able to use down time on a shift to revise rather than trail social media.
3. Don’t be afraid to ‘Square your shoulders’ and say no
As a junior in the team saying ‘no’ to their seniors wasn’t something that came easily to my friend. In fact, in an effort to appear ‘keen’ and ‘interested’ my friend had agreed to take on an audit for almost every job they rotated through. The deadlines were looming and they couldn’t help but wish they hadn’t agreed to take on so much. After reading ‘how to say no at work’ from a Forbes website, they were able to speak to their seniors about letting go of an audit they knew they didn’t have time for. Suddenly they had unlocked extra hours in the day and they were applying the same principles to commitments outside of work. They let go of their FOMO (fear of missing out) and said no to events they would usually feel obliged to go to.
4. Plan an escape - “be there or be square”
One thing most medics come to realise early on is that you don't always get the leave that you want. For my friend this was the third time in a row they were going to miss out on Christmas day with family and friends. The previous year, they were so crushed they boycotted all things Christmas. This year they were determined to enjoy whatever they could. They had learnt that by padding out their time between shifts with fun things. it meant that there was always something good to look forward to.
Although it sounds dull the ‘square approach’ transformed my friend into someone who is anything but that. They experienced the deleterious effects of thinking a medics’ life should be secondary to their work, and by challenging this thought with a simple approach to my friend has effectually boosted their physical and mental well-being. I hope these tips will be shared and are of benefit to others faced with similar circumstances.
Very well said article! I am a nurse, also having the same hectic schedule. And having read this article has open my mind to taking care of myself, like the number one tip, buying foods and having three regular meals. Also the second tip, by maximizing the use of mobile to upgrade the revised skills or procedures or medicines. And lastly, I will surely apply the last one, to plan an escape or leave and to spent it wisely. thank you for this! kudos to the writer! -Junainah Domado, staff nurse in Doha, Qatar