Most physicians cite work-life balance as a top priority. Yet there is little clarity on what exactly work-life balance means.
Some prefer the term work-life integration, suggesting that work and personal life should be intertwined. Work-life integration is a common buzzword in managerial circles. However, for most physicians, this way of life is already a reality. Taking calls, working late, and keeping up with CME and recertification already mean that much of what might be considered personal time is filled with work commitments. Therefore, what “work-life integration” often means is that there is really no distinction between the two.
Under this construct, work may be expected to encroach freely into family and personal time without boundaries. Yet, in most cases, the river only flows one way. Bringing your home and personal responsibilities to work may be neither practical nor desirable.
For these reasons, I believe that work-life balance (WLB) is a better goal for physicians. But what does balance even mean? You might be surprised to learn that art theory holds the answer.
Most people think about balance as a seesaw or a set of scales, with each element balancing the other to achieve a perfect equilibrium. This cliché is virtually impossible to achieve and may not even be desirable. Instead, there’s another more nuanced way to look at balance that I believe can better inform your personal choices.
Before we go any further, it’s valuable to think about WLB as more than simply “work” and “life.” Work is an important part of life and perhaps even a defining feature of the life you’ve chosen. But “life” isn’t just what’s left over after work. It can be useful to think about life as an array of different elements. Broadly speaking, these may include:
- Anything else that’s meaningful to you
Equalizing all of these factors using traditional concepts of balance is just not going to happen. But if we borrow the concept of balance from art theory, it all starts to make more sense.
In art, balance can be:
- Crystallographic (also known as mosaic)
Let’s take a little detour into art theory to illustrate what this means.
Symmetric balance. This is the typical way we think of balance. Think of a perfectly balanced scale or a mirrored pair. The Taj Mahal is a great example of symmetric balance.
Asymmetric balance. The perception of weight across the composition may be balanced, but each element has a different size or mass. Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is an example of asymmetric balance. Each element has a different size and mass, but the composition balances perfectly. Other well-known paintings using asymmetric balance include James Whistler’s “Whistler’s Mother” and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Asymmetric balance tends to create more interesting and dynamic images.
Radial balance. This type of balance uses a central focal point. Rays, spirals, or ripples radiating outward from a pebble in the water are examples of radial balance, as is a nautilus shell. Radial balance is commonly found in nature.
Crystallographic (mosaic) balance. In this type of balance, all elements share equal weight, and there is no single focal point. Think about a grid with identically sized images within each square.
For physicians, it’s virtually impossible to give all aspects of life equal weight. That’s why an asymmetric concept of balance can be especially useful. With asymmetric balance, you have wide latitude to play with different scales and elements. Compared to the symmetric form of balance, where both sides hold equal weight, asymmetric balance falls apart when the elements are too similar. In asymmetric balance, there is usually a dominant element, with the other components playing a supportive or bridging role. Often, two smaller elements work harmoniously to balance a larger one. Creating asymmetric balance can be challenging but gratifying. Moving one element often means that the others must also be shifted to maintain a sense of harmony. This new configuration might strike a different chord and create different relationships between the pieces. Like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” there may be some tension, but the composition still feels complete.
When thinking about your own WLB, asymmetric balance may be a good starting point to consider. As your priorities shift over time, your vision of balance may also change. The asymmetric model is a way to conceptualize a personal definition of balance that works for you. How do you begin to define your own WLB? Sitting down with pen and paper and sketching it out in words or pictures is a great way to gain clarity on your own ideas and create your vision for the future.