The Coronavirus pandemic has underscored the often-chronic issues of understaffing and overworking in the healthcare industry. With nearly half of all clinicians facing burnout at some point during their career, it poses the question of how to strike balance between an ambitious work life and a healthy home life. Yet creating the right work-life balance isn’t always as simple as walking out the door at the end of your shift. Emails, text messages, and constant updates can make turning the healthcare provider switch off nearly impossible. But failure to switch off isn’t just detrimental to your own mental and physical health. Patients at the care of a burnout provider are also at risk, adding another depth to the danger of failing to find balance. Whether you’re a student or practitioner, this guide offers actionable advice and strategies for balancing a fulfilling professional life with an active personal life. Keep reading to learn how to even the busiest RNs and most determined MDs can strike a healthy balance.
Why Balance Matters
As the old adage goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. When your healthcare education or job becomes all encompassing, self-care falls by the wayside and burnout creeps in. If you want to be the best healthcare professional you can be, finding balance is critical. Here are just some of the reasons that striking a balance is so crucial.
As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, healthcare workers and students pushed to the brink by expanding cases have suffered in both their physical and mental health. A May 2020 survey found that 59% of healthcare professionals stated their mental health had worsened since the pandemic began while musculoskeletal issues due to working with patients during long shifts can contribute to time off work and lost paychecks. Because healthcare exists as a caring profession, it can be hard to put your health first when it feels like others’ health is more pressing or precarious. But your years of education and training will be of no use if you are sick or injured. Remember that without your own health, you cannot help others maintain their health.
Your Career Longevity
Even prior to 2020, burnout was a significant issue among U.S.-based healthcare providers. A 2018 report by Cureus found that more than half of physicians and one in three nurses experienced symptoms of burnout. A study conducted during the pandemic found that 26.6% of surveyed healthcare workers experienced emotional exhaustion while 53% stated they were dealing with high levels of burnout. When working in such pressurized, life-or-death situations, it’s inevitable that you will eventually feel disconnected from your work and lose a sense of why you entered the field in the first place. For the sake of your career and the sake of your patients, avoiding burnout is a must.
Patient Care Quality
Did you know that failing to find work-life balance can adversely affect patients? A study on stress in the healthcare professions found that, of 226 physicians who had experienced stress at work, 76 incidents of adverse patient care were self-reported. A similar study found that provider burnout can increase the rate of issues around patient safety in care by double. As someone who devotes their life to helping others, the last thing you want to do is provide substandard care or potentially jeopardize the health outcomes of your patients.
Your Home Life
When you’re working 80 hours per week and coming home physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted, it’s easy for your family life to suffer. A report on industries with the highest divorce rates found that healthcare ranked sixth highest at 31.6%. LPNs saw rates as high as 47% while ambulance drivers and EMTs clocked in at 46%. Whether you’re single, in a partnership, or married, spending quality time with your partner is critical to harmonious home life. This becomes even more true if you have children.
Your Personal Life
A study on the effects of hospital workers’ friendship networks on job stress found that doctors, nurses, and radiological technologists who maintained deep, long-term friendships had lower levels of stress than those with weaker connections. Whether your friendships come from school, intramural sports groups, your church, or any other number of social activities, actively participating in these relationships can help you lower your stress. Maintaining these relationships can also help ensure you keep your work-life balance in check.
Balance as a Professional: 10 Tips
Saying you’re going to maintain work-life or school-life balance is one thing; actually doing it is another. Equilibrium isn’t static: finding balance requires constant vigilance and taking time to assess if both sides of your life are receiving equal attention. If you feel off-kilter, know that balance is something that doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, try working in increments or addressing specific goals, such as spending more time with family or getting the recommended amount of sleep. Below we look at a few things you can do to achieve – and maintain – balance as a healthcare professional.
Ask for Help
Once you identify an issue in your work-life balance, try to figure out where it originates. Are you working too many hours? Seeing too many clients? Maintaining a schedule that doesn’t work for your life? Figuring out what is causing your stress is key because once you know, you can ask for help. By reaching out to your supervisor, you can let them know what is going on. If they are a good manager, they will work with you to find ways to alleviate the stress and help you restore balance. If not, it may be time to look for a different job that values your life outside of work.
Create a Realistic Schedule
Whether you’re studying to become a physician or currently working as a nurse, you must follow a realistic schedule if you want to avoid burnout. If your schoolwork seems to be never-ending, consider taking fewer credits next semester. If your work rotation leaves you lacking personal time, consider cutting back to a 90% or 80% schedule – at least for a time. It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re not okay. Cutting back on your schedule, even temporarily, can help you reprioritize and avoid more serious, long-term issues.
Learn to Say No
Leading group projects. Overseeing a staff initiative. Covering shifts. All of these things can feel hard to say no to, especially if you’re a people pleaser. While it’s good and natural to want to help others, you realistically cannot do that effectively if you don’t first help yourself. It’s also okay to say no to things in your personal life. While hanging out with friends or family can help relieve stress, it can also add to it if what you really need is a quiet night at home on the couch or a good workout session.
Use Your Vacation Time
A study by the U.S. Travel Association found that Americans had 705 million unused vacations days in 2017, up from 662 million the year prior. Overall, 52% of U.S. employees failed to use all their allotted vacation days across the year. Vacation guilt is a real thing that affects millions of employees in the United States, especially those who may feel their skills and talents can make the difference in whether someone lives or dies. But remember, you are able to do a better job when you are refreshed and rejuvenated. Take your vacation days and remember to fully unplug while away.
Limit Access While Off
American workers spend more than five hours per day checking and responding to email, even when not on the clock. There’s a culture of being available at all times that’s only augmented by constant access via smartphones and tablet devices, but endless access isn’t necessarily a good thing. If any emergency arises, your hospital or clinic can call you. If they are sending an email, chances are it can wait until the next time you’re at work. If you find it difficult to abstain from checking email at all hours, consider taking the account off your phone or silencing your email when at home.
Create Boundaries at Home
With telehealth and teletherapy taking a central role in 2020, disconnecting from work is harder than ever. When you’re working from home it’s easy to never fully end your day. If you’re a healthcare provider with a remote position – either temporarily or permanently – it’s time to set boundaries. For starters, make sure you only do work in a designated office space. If possible, make sure that space is not in areas of the house used for leisure, especially your bedroom. Set a daily alarm on your phone to remind you when the workday officially ends.
Get Enough Sleep
A 2019 research study conducted by Ball State University and the National Health Intervention Survey found that more than half of healthcare professionals aren’t getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. Many report managing only five or six hours during each rest cycle. The required amount of sleep varies by person, but experts agree that healthy adults need between seven and nine hours each day to function at high capacity. This becomes especially true when you’re in the business of saving lives.
Hire Out Certain Tasks
If the majority of your waking hours are spent at work, the last thing you want to do when you get home is take care of chores that wear you out but don’t require your expertise. If your budget allows, consider hiring a cleaner or taking your laundry elsewhere to be done. Find someone in your neighborhood who mows lawns as a side business. Look for ways you can minimize tasks that take up your time when you’re away from work. Even hiring out just a few of these can add up to several hours.
Be Nice to Your Feet
Did you know that nearly 2.5 million sick days were taken over one year due to podiatric issues? When you spend hours on your feet each day and walk long distances, taking care of your feet is of paramount importance. Aside from investing in good footwear that provides proper elevation and arch support, you should also ensure they fit properly. Try to stretch your tendons, ice your feet after work, and get regular massages. If that’s not possible, make sure you elevate them in the evenings to help with swelling.
Find Creative Exercise
Time and time again, exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve mental health, and contribute to overall health. But getting on the treadmill or picking up a heavy weight can sometimes feel like the last thing you want do at the end of the day. One great option for getting in exercise and reducing your carbon footprint simultaneously is to bike to work. This low-impact option raises your heartrate, allows you to take in sights and sounds, and keeps you from circling the parking garage in search of an elusive spot.
How Your Workplace Can (and Should) Help
Achieving work-life balance requires the buy-in not only of you, but also those above you. Workplaces that recognize healthcare staff are at their best when they find balance between their personal and professional lives typically set policies and programs to help them achieve this goal. If you aren’t sure what a supportive and compassionate healthcare workplace looks like, check out these examples below.
Development of Supportive & Caring Managers
Healthcare facilities are notoriously busy, stressful places. It takes a dynamic, supportive, and well-trained manager to oversee staff and ensure they get the care they need to thrive. But managers who don’t receive the training they need to provide these services cannot help those they supervise. Hospitals, clinics, and other medical facilities must offer ongoing continuing education and training sessions to ensure they know how to alleviate the pressure placed on healthcare workers.
Ensuring that Understaffing Isn’t a Problem
Understaffing has been a problem in healthcare for at least a decade, specifically when it comes to nurses. Even currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that more than 370,000 new jobs for RNs will be added between 2018 and 2028. When hospitals and clinics are understaffed, current workers end up clocking long hours. Aside from creating increased issues around burnout, it can also lead to drops in quality of patient care. Employers can work with local colleges and universities to recruit new graduates and alleviate the workload.
Allowing for Flexible Schedules
Rather than following tradition, employers attuned to their employees’ needs are increasingly allowing for more flexible scheduling. Some healthcare professionals may do best with a standard 9-5 while others may prefer longer shifts but fewer days on-site. Still others may do best with a mix of on-site and work-from-home scheduling. Finding ways to accommodate the needs of employees can both help avoid burnout and ensure staff are happier and more likely to stay with the same employer longer.
Setting Up (Paid) Workplace Volunteer Opportunities
Research from the Mayo Clinic Health System shows that volunteering can decrease the risk of depression, reduce stress, provide a sense of purpose, and help individuals live longer. Trying to volunteer during your limited time off can add even more stress, but thoughtful employers look for ways to allow employees opportunities for volunteerism that doesn’t cut into their leisure time. Because you spend your days in a healthcare setting, it’s probably best if volunteer programs allow you to use your other skillsets.
Offering On-site Services
A study by benefit advisor JP Griffin Group found that providing on-site services can help employees better use their time off for activities that help rejuvenate them. In addition to offering healthcare services, other examples may include an on-site gym, childcare, laundry pick-up and drop-off, or the ability to send packages at work. Another option involves offering high-quality, low-cost food options so employees don’t have to worry about packing their lunch each day.
Balance as a Student: 5 Secrets to Success
While much of our advice focuses on supporting healthcare professionals, professionals-in-training must also begin considering how to achieve work-life balance with the demands of school. Learning these lessons early on will also help with setting boundaries at the beginning of your career and sticking with them. Students often face the challenging position of balancing the demands of school – including clinical hours – with work and personal obligations. We look at a few ways these learners can achieve balance not only with work and life, but with school as well.
Create a Conducive Space
If you study online, chances are you sometimes find it difficult to stay focused with your TV or pet are nearby. While distance learning can save you tons of time on commuting and meeting at specific times, it can also spell disaster if you don’t develop good habits and discipline early on. Aside from creating a physical space that is separate from areas where you typically chill out, remember to minimize digital distractions as well. Ideas for this may include keeping your phone in a different room, signing out of social media platforms, or creating timers for short, structured breaks.
Ask for Help
Whether in work, life, or school, sometimes we all need a little help. Many people around you are likely willing to offer support and help along the way, but they cannot help if they don’t know you need it. If you are struggling to keep up with work during finals, speak to your supervisor and let them know you need to cut back your hours for a time. If completing clinical hours leaves you exhausted after a long day, ask your roommate if you can make up your part of the chores once things settle down. Identify the things you need to maintain balance and don’t be afraid to ask for them.
Missing project deadlines, showing up late to your practicum, or missing a dear friend’s birthday celebration are all examples of what happens when organization gets the best of you. When you’re trying to go to school, work, be social, and complete graduation requirements, it’s natural that some things may fall through the cracks but there are things you can do to help yourself. Using your digital calendar, keeping a tidy room or house, making sure all of your technology gets charged each day, and creating a weekly meal plan can all help you stay on top of your schedule and make you feel less chaotic.
Take Time Off
It’s important to remember that the job you hold in college typically isn’t one you will have long-term. Because of this, you must prioritize school over work if at all possible – especially during critical times such as exams. If you need to schedule time off to feel good about your study schedule, do it. If you have a good supervisor who respects your work-life balance, this shouldn’t be a problem. If it is a problem, it’s good to know where your supervisor stands.
Be Honest with Friends and Family
Trying to be all things to all people often ends in you feeling like a failure and your friends or family feeling disappointed. Instead of trying to do it all, let those closest to you know that your life and your free time will look a lot different during this season. Explain that you might not make every happy hour or cousin’s birthday, but you are missing out on these occasions for a worthwhile reason.
How Your School Can (and Should) Help
Administrators and faculty members alike can (and should) help students find school-life balance and help prepare them for success after graduating. In adopting a caring and supportive stance, schools can also help protect against high dropout rates or dissatisfied learners. A few ways they can help include:
Show Care and Concern
Whether enrolled online or in-person, faculty and staff members who show genuine interest in their students are the ones that learners remember long after graduating. Whether struggling to keep up with school and work or dealing with a demanding relationship, you can help students feel supported during these tough times. This doesn’t mean you need to know the ins and outs of the situation, but rather make yourself available if the student wants to talk about it or ask for advice.
Look for Growth Rather than Perfection
Rather than pressuring students to be the best or criticizing them for mistakes, instead look for and champion growth. Perfectionism can often act as a self-defeating exercise that, in the long run, causes more harm than good. Create assignments that allow learners the ability to demonstrate to both you and themselves that they have grown over the course of the semester. Seeing this growth within themselves can also lead to greater levels of motivation, better focus, and higher self-esteem – all of which can contribute to better balance.
Rather than creating a hard and fast deadline that is impossible given the student’s personal and professional responsibilities, work with them to find a date that allows them ample time to feel good about what they turn in. Creating unrealistic expectations doesn’t build character; it causes imposter syndrome. Work with students to better understand other obligations outside of class. Treat them like adults and negotiate due dates that work for both of you.
Schools have also started to provide online learning options with most of their healthcare education programs. If you’re looking at a post-secondary credential in nursing, for example, explore online nursing programs.
What If You’re Both? Balancing Work & School
For many healthcare students – particularly those taking classes towards a graduate degree – work and school go hand-in-hand. Whether working in a job unrelated to healthcare or already in the field, trying to make time in your day for a job alongside the demands of school can be challenging. If you’re wondering how to achieve balance, we’ve got a few tips for managing your growing responsibility list.
- Make school about work. If you’re given a real-world project, consider whether you can use your current place of employment as a case study. This not only allows you to collect research while on the job, it also demonstrates to your employer your interest in the work they do.
- Consider online learning. Time is a valuable commodity when you’re balancing school, work, and regular life. If you want save hours every week, cut out your commute. By learning from the comfort of your home, you can get the same quality education without all the extra time.
- Love what you learn. If you’re going to sacrifice time with friends and family, sleep, and down-time, make sure it’s worth it. Choose a degree that aligns with your passions, interests, and long-term career goals. This will make the long nights and early mornings feel far more worth it.
Work-Life Balance Advice From the Expert
Mari Verano, M.A., L.M.F.T., is a graduate of UC Berkeley and John F. Kennedy University with over ten years of experience working in mental health and a certificate in Neuroscience for Clinical Practice. As a licensed therapist in California, Mari specializes in treating BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ survivors of narcissistic abuse. Through her coaching and consulting company, Mari Verano LLC, she specializes in helping BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ leaders worldwide identify, cope with, and eliminate toxic behavior from their workplaces and lives.
1) Work in healthcare can be emotionally and mentally draining. What advice do you have for truly separating from work on days off?
Discipline yourself to not check any work-related e-mail if you don’t have to—or from doing any work-related tasks. If you must do work-related tasks during time off (for example, completing Continuing Education Units for license renewal) only do the essential ones and reward yourself for doing these afterwards.
2) What surprised you most about finding — and keeping –work/life balance in this industry?
I was warned when I started my master’s degree that my relationships would change the more that I learned about relationships. I did not anticipate that I had to let go of so many friends for both my personal well-being and mental health.
The field of therapy is dominated by women, and women are socialized to be caretakers under all circumstances. I realized that I did not want to do any unpaid caretaking on my days off. I will still be there for my friends and loved ones when they need me, but due to what I do for a living, I will only become close to people who are continuously working on their personal growth. This is a hard boundary that I do not regret setting after giving so much time and energy to people who saw me as an opportunity for free therapy.
3) What advice would you give to those who may not have a supervisor who encourages work/life balance?
Remember that a supervisor establishes the company culture and that as a healthcare worker, you are needed everywhere. The advice I would give people in this situation is to look for another position while setting healthy boundaries with their supervisor. You are needed everywhere, and a supervisor who does not encourage this balance is basically encouraging you to burn out. Think of this as being loyal to your career, not to one position or organization.
4) What is the most important thing a healthcare professional can prioritize with limited time off?
The most important thing is to prioritize the activities and people who bring you the most joy and relaxation. It is up to you to decide what these things are. Do not give in to pressure to attend events out of fear, obligation, and/or guilt because the people there are your blood family. If time with family brings you joy and relaxation, great! However, I know from working in my field that family is often a source of pain and misery. Do the emotional work to truly own what you want and need most for support and relaxation.
5) Where can individuals in these demanding jobs go for support and help if they feel overwhelmed?
Seek therapy from a licensed professional who is bound by confidentiality to keep your information secret. There are low-cost options for therapy through counseling graduate schools if you cannot afford someone licensed.
I would recommend that you do not seek the support of your peers unless you are in a group with a professional who must legally keep your information secret. This is because there are many people in the healthcare fields who are not aware of their own emotional shadows and may use your vulnerability and weaknesses against you. Do not assume that because someone shares your title, they share your level of empathy.
Plenty of online and in-person resources exist in workplaces, at colleges and universities, and via digital platforms. The following sections highlight just a few of the tools, apps, and support systems available to you when seeking work-life balance.