Work dread. Even if you didn’t know it had a name, you know the feeling. It is that sensation in the pit of your stomach when you realize that the start of your workday or workweek is fast approaching, and you don’t want it to come. Sometimes it begins on Sunday afternoon when you want to be enjoying time with your family. Other times, you might find yourself sitting in the hospital or clinic parking lot, resisting the beginning of another busy day. Maybe you sit in your car for an extra 10 minutes and allow yourself to finish a podcast episode. Or perhaps you doomscroll on Facebook for a few minutes before taking a deep breath, getting out of your car, and starting your day.
When I am dreading work, I sometimes allow myself to daydream about retirement. I imagine relaxing on some remote beach far away from the madness and chaos that is health care in 2022. There will be no more patient satisfaction scores, prior authorizations, or peer-to-peers, and there will be plenty of time for relaxation. This is what the financial independence retirement early (FIRE) movement is all about: Being able to step away any time you want. The idea of doing nothing sounds incredible. Before I found physician coaching, exiting medicine seemed like the only solution for escaping my work dread.
Physician coaching was a wake-up call for me, just as it is for the physician clients I work with daily. We tend to vilify medicine and idealize retirement. We believe that life will be better without medicine. In retirement, we will finally get to live life on our terms. But when we think that life outside of medicine is better, we punch ourselves in the face. We argue with reality and trade the possibility of joy tomorrow for guaranteed misery today. Of course, you will dread work if you believe that it is impossible to be happy working as a physician in 2022.
There is certainly something that sounds magical about leaving the worries of medicine behind. The truth is that most physicians I speak to love practicing medicine, but there are parts of their work that they find frustrating. Despite those frustrations, many physicians thrive when they are feeling busy and productive. We are highly motivated, extremely capable individuals that never shied away from a challenge. Sure, reading a book on the beach or playing multiple rounds of golf sounds fun, but after a week or a month, restlessness will surely find you. What then?
We do not need to escape work to be happy now. We do not need to give up medicine to enjoy our lives. Enjoying your life is available to you now. You get to choose. You can decide to postpone happiness while working extra hours and saving more money so that you can retire at age 45, or you can choose to work a little less now to create space while finding activities and interests that bring you joy. You can choose to spend time with your family now and plan to work for a few extra years. You can also choose to enjoy the challenge that is health care in 2022.
I get it. That last sentence may sound controversial, frustrating, or downright infuriating. Even re-reading that sentence causes me to experience an internal conflict. My brain immediately goes to the most frustrating aspects of my day: a peer-to-peer, an overbooked schedule, a demanding patient, the inability to eat a quick lunch without being disturbed, etc. And when I think about these things in this way, I feel frustrated, annoyed, and hopeless. I provide evidence that the dread I felt before I got out of my car in the morning was wholly justified. I punch myself in the face and then complain that it hurts.
Alternatively, I can choose to think of these things as my superpowers. I can get my patient the CT scan they need with just one phone call. OK. Maybe it will take two phone calls and a phone tree of innumerable options before my patient’s CT gets approved. But they will get what they need because I am a dedicated physician that fights for my patients’ best interests. My patients think I am great and want to see me, so my schedule is overbooked. I have been overbooked before, and it will probably happen again, but I know I can do it. And when my patients are grateful to see me, I’m not going to brush it off as a kind gesture. I will really feel their gratitude because that is just one of the many things that make my work worthwhile.
My entire attitude changed when I began to focus on the fulfilling parts of my work. When I think about the intellectual challenges, the appreciative patients, and the incredible opportunity I have to help people daily, I stop trying to run away from the work that inspires me. When I think about these situations in this way, I am filled with hope, gratitude, and the knowledge that I get to make a difference every time I get out of my car.
Sure there are mornings that I don’t want to go to work, and I would much rather stay in bed and eat breakfast with my family. Reading a book or working out while having a lazy day would be nice. On those days, I remind myself that my work matters. I also remind myself that it is OK to be frustrated. I don’t have to like peer-to-peers to be a good doctor that does excellent work and cares deeply about his patients. I can feel frustrated during my day and still leave work knowing that I made a difference in many lives. That is enough to get me out of the car and back to enjoying today. It is great to plan for tomorrow, but don’t forget to enjoy today. It is only here for a limited time.
Michael Hersh is a gastroenterologist.
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