5 tips to maintain work-life balance as a medical intern

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I was asked by one of my readers recently to write a post on how I maintain work-life balance during the all-consuming intern year of medical training. I love this idea because keeping myself sane while spending 80 percent of my time in the hospital has proven to be a constantly challenging task, and I’ve come up with a few ways to cope. Instead of giving tips that sound good on paper but in reality busy people never have time to do, I’m going to share my top 5 practical tips to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

1. Plan ahead. This is something I’ve learned to be really good at this year. When you only get nine 2-day weekends in the entire year, you really learn how to maximize those weekends! I can’t emphasize enough how planning ahead helped me to make the most out of my limited free time. Once I knew I was going to have a day or two days off at a time, I would plan something, whether it’s a meal with friends or family or a staycation with the hubs. Another tip is to get multiple people together at a time for a hangout, so you can catch up with a few at a time. Introducing your friend groups to each other may help facilitate group hangouts!

Another thing that has helped is telling my friends in advance what times I have free. Two of my best friends are getting married this year, and I am maid-of-honor in one and bridesmaid in the other. It was important to us that I could be present at the bridal festivities since I was helping to plan them, so we chatted far in advance about which weekends could work for me. Think of it this way: If your friends have a couple different weekends they can choose from for major life events, why not tell them which few days you’re free so you can attend? It’s a win-win situation.

2. Arrange time to decompress. This seems obvious, but I know how easy it can be to constantly be in work mode, even after you go home. There’s always more material to study, more projects to tackle, more stuff to catch up on. Build an hour or two into your schedule to simply not think about work. Turn off that part of your brain! Use that time as me time, just to relax and get strength to tackle the next work task when it comes. My favorite activities to do while decompressing include hanging out with friends or vegging out in front of the TV. Reading some blogs. Online shopping. Some in person shopping. Cooking a meal. Exercising. Watching cute animal videos online. Whatever you need to give your brain some down time, do it and don’t skimp!

3. Surround yourself with people who care about you and vice versa. Back in high school and college my goal was to try to make as many friends as possible. I’d have a friend group for studying, one for partying, one for jamming, etc. Now I just have one group: close friends. When you have limited time to hang out with anyone, you narrow down your friend group real quick to the super important ones. No drama needed. These are the friends who will understand your crazy work schedule, the ones who will cheer you up when you have a bad day, and the ones who will support you through anything. If you are lucky enough to have family or a loving significant other nearby, take advantage of that! We are taught in medicine that one of the major protective factors against depression and suicide is having a good support network. Make yours count.

4. Prioritize health. For many of us, health takes a back seat because we’re young, we think we’re invincible, etc. Even as a doctor, I too often ignore my own health issues! But staying healthy is at the core of work-life balance. Without health, you simply won’t have the energy to keep powering through work. My advice is to eat healthy and exercise. It is so easy to binge eat when stressed, but fill your house with healthy snacks and set clear rules for yourself like no deep fried foods or half a plate of veggies a day. As for exercise, I’ll admit that I am not good at routinely exercising. In fact, my husband has to remind me to exercise multiple times a week before I finally make it to the gym … once. But anyone who is familiar with science (or Legally Blonde) knows that exercise causes release of endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates that induce happiness. Participants in the study I linked above experienced a greater sense of euphoria after exercise and brain imaging confirms that endorphins are released and attach to areas of the brain responsible for emotions. So there’s a major positive there; exercise actually makes you happy. It also happens to keep you from becoming obese, which prevents tons of health problems and self-esteem issues.

5. See the light at the end of the tunnel. There has to be some break or end in sight even if you’re stuck in a bad situation at work at the moment. Look ahead and see when your next break is, or when this particular project or rotation is over. Maybe you don’t like your boss; perhaps there’s some way to switch managers or teams. In my case, my most exhausting rotations this year were two months in the intensive care unit and two weeks doing overnight shifts covering the entire hospital. During moments when I felt extremely tired and burnt out, it helped me to think that how I was feeling was temporary, and that there is a foreseeable end in sight. If you absolutely cannot find any sort of end to a horrible predicament, then maybe it’s time for you to reevaluate why you’re in the job you’re in and what you can do to change it.

Joyce Ho is a medical intern who blogs at Tea with MD.  She can be reached on Twitter @TeawithMD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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