I’ve written about physician burnout since The Physician Philosopher started in November of 2017. At the time, I was not burned out. In fact, I loved my job, and my work-life balance was great. My purpose in starting this blog was to teach others how to utilize the tools of financial independence to prevent (and treat) their own burnout. And to teach them behavioral finance. It was an important message, but not one that I applied directly to me.
Then, in July of 2018 I started burning out myself.
On one occasion, one of my partners said, “Jimmy, you are really pushing back against a lot of ‘asks’. Why don’t you just do what people want?”
I told him the truth. “Honestly, man, I am at the point where I feel like I need to stop anything else that has the potential to burn me out.”
When this happened, it was an interesting experience, because the burnout was not caused by my job. This is unlike many others who experience burnout caused by the work place. After all, sometimes the hospital will not love you back.
Are there parts of my job that I would change? Yes. But, for the most part, I love my job.
So, what gives? What could cause burnout in someone who otherwise enjoys their job? Am I just a hypocrite?
The phrase is used so often it is almost cliche at this point, but the idea of “work-life balance” looms ever larger.
In my mind, the idea of work-life balance produces a mental image of a person walking a tightrope while utilizing a balance poll. If either side of the poll (work or life) are weighted too heavily, the walker loses their balance and slips off the tightrope. The goal is to have a match between the weights that produce balance.
A story that does a good job of exemplifying this is the story of the fisherman. In it, the fisherman discusses the balance he found in life to the business man (who lived a “work heavy” life).
When the business man meets the fisherman, he is surprised that someone would focus so much on life – and so little on business. The fisherman worked the day and fished for his family. This provided enough for him to enjoy his ideal life. He worked as little (and as much) as he wanted.
In the evenings, he would play with his friends and family. What more could he want? He was walking the tightrope with perfect balance.
This delicate balance is challenging, though. It seems that very few find it.
So, when my wife started a full time job in July of 2018, I found out what it felt like to be thrown off-kilter.
My wife is a gifted educator, and – if I am being honest – she is more gifted as a teacher than I am as a physician. Don’t get me wrong. I am no slouch at my job. I’ve won my share of awards and accolades. But, my wife can teach. She is incredible.
Her bosses recognize it. The teachers she works with see it. And the impact she has on the kids in the classroom is unmistakable.
Yet, for the first time since our (almost) eight year child old was born, she was working full time instead of part time. And it kicked my work-life balance right in the teeth.
I Am Burned Out, But I Love My Job
The rub in all of this is that I was already working 1.3 FTE, performing successful clinical trials, and teaching residents/fellows/students. I also work with the best group of doctors and CRNA’s imaginable. The truth is that I LOVE my job.
In addition to all of that, I also have this blog that I (happily) let consume most of my free time. This is my passion, and I would honestly do it for free. If something gives, it won’t be the blog, because it is often what helps provide some of my sanity.
But… my work-life balance was out of whack.
I needed to support my gifted wife in addition to all of my responsibilities at work. I was not offered the opportunity at work to cut back. Then again, I also haven’t asked for it (yet).
My responsibilities at home doubled between the cooking, cleaning, and helping with the kids. While I enjoy helping at home – with my current work load, it started to suffocate me. I felt like I was drowning.
That was about the time I instituted my “Hell Yes” Policy.
For example, I only attend meetings that are high on the priority list, and only when I am scheduled to be at work. If the meetings occur on a post-call day, I am now noticeably absent.
This might seem like I am less dedicated to my job, but the truth is that we only have one life to live. And there are only so many hours in the day. I am very intentional about where I spend my hours these days.
If I have to choose between being “less dedicated at work” and my wife or kids feeling like I am more dedicated at home, the choice has become obvious. My family always wins.
We All Make a Choice
When I went through the Three Kinder Questions with my wife to help us figure out the big picture for our family, it became readily apparent that being there for my wife and kids is what matters most to me. This is my “why” behind the money decisions I make.
So, when my at home responsibilities doubled, and my work responsibilities remained the same… the balances began to tip and I started to fall off that tightrope.
To gain that balance back, I backed off from my work responsibilities. I’ve cut back on some of my active research opportunities (though I am still doing some research), and offered to give shifts to people who want them.
This has allowed me to work towards the work-life balance I’ve looked for since July 2018 kicked me in the teeth. It’s also allowed me some more time to focus on other things that I am more passionate about.
Walking the tightrope to find work-life balance can be really challenging. When work or life becomes overwhelming that balance bar can tip, we must find a way to fix the problem.
We have to be honest with who we are and where we are heading. Otherwise, we risk falling off the tightrope completely. Learn to say no to things that aren’t going to accomplish your purpose and passion in life, and focus on what matters most.
Have you ever felt burned out? Was it because of work or life? Both? Leave a comment below.