Tips for physicians thinking about working part-time

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Sure, it’s nice to think about cutting back on the work hours and spending more time at home with the kids. Or out on the running trails getting fit and enjoying nature. Or singing in a chorus. But how do you really make that decision? And if you do decide to work part-time, how do you make the most of it?

After struggling to juggle two full-time health care careers with all the other things we wanted to do, we decided to work part-time. We don’t recommend it for everybody, but for us, it was the best decision we ever made. It reduced our stress and probably saved our marriage.

If you’re thinking of working part-time, consider these lessons we learned along the way.

1. Decide how much money you need to be happy. If you decide to work part-time, you won’t be able to afford the same material possessions as your colleagues. You’ll have a smaller house, a less expensive car, and you won’t be taking many vacations to Bali. If these prospects trouble you, then it’s a no-brainer: keep working full-time. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to live on a budget, working part-time may be right for you. The good news is that physician salaries are high enough that you can work part-time and still live comfortably. And the research shows that being comfortable is all you need to be happy — along with meaning and social support. Too much wealth tends to make people less happy.

When we decided to make the change to part-time, we felt an immediate release of tension. We had been juggling our careers, our marriage, and our own self-care, and things were going great. Then into the mix came our children, and it was more than we could handle. Working part-time restored our joy and our sanity. But the price was that we had to discipline ourselves to set a budget and live within it. We became acutely aware of that budget each time we went grocery shopping. And as we approached the end of each month. Of course, once our kids left home and we returned to working full-time, we had so much money we didn’t know what to do. We’d look at each other and say, “We’re rich!” At least, that’s the way we felt. And now grocery shopping is much more carefree.

2. Decide whether your goal is career success or career satisfaction. In addition to thinking about your income, you also need to think about your career ambitions and your professional reputation. How important is it to you to be regarded as a “top gun” in your field? In many organizations, working part-time carries with it a stigma of not being fully invested in your career. If you work for such an organization, and your goal is career success, then you should probably stick with full-time. Or else find a new place to work.

If career satisfaction is more important to you than career success, then working part-time may be right for you. That’s what we discovered when we made the switch. We both worked in academic medicine, where career success was defined in terms of being promoted to administrative positions such as committee chair, medical director, department chair, and so on. Working part-time saved us from these administrative headaches and allowed us to do work we find interesting and meaningful. Perhaps we’re rationalizing here, but most days we appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to focus our careers on patient care and teaching. We generally leave work at a reasonable hour and go home to personal and family priorities, while others get paid the big bucks to stay late and worry about budgets and grants, meetings and paperwork. And when we do work late, it’s for something we really believe in: taking care of our patients, teaching students and residents, helping a colleague get through a tough time.

3. Decide what role you want in your children’s lives. If one of you is a physician, and you both want to work full-time and have children, you may need to recruit others to do a chunk of the parental duties: nannies, au pairs, and baby sitters; grandparents, friends, and neighbors; teachers, coaches, and after-school programs; scout leaders and Sunday school teachers. Not to mention electronic babysitters such as television, video games, and social media. Whether we work full-time or not, we all recruit a village to help raise our children. Children benefit from exposure to the wider community. The question we all need to ask ourselves is: What role do we want to play in our children’s growth and development?

In our case, we decided we wanted to have a daily, active role in our children’s lives, and we found we weren’t able to do that and maintain two full-time careers. Time and again we found ourselves “outsourcing” our parenting responsibilities and asking, “Why bother to have children if we aren’t going to raise them?” So, working less and parenting more felt right for us. We have many friends who chose differently, delegating more parenting responsibilities to nannies and grandparents. And, some of our friends have been successful at negotiating for more flexible (full-time) work arrangements, allowing them to more easily juggle parenting and work duties.

4. Do the math, and slice the pie. The average workload of U.S. doctors is nearly 60 hours per week. That’s 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Or 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 10 hours of call on the weekend. However you configure it, it’s a lot of time away from home. And it’s not just the time; it’s also the energy. A physician’s work is very demanding, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. A person who works this hard will not have time or energy to enjoy the “normal” things that other people do. Practical things like buying groceries, cooking meals, and mowing the lawn. Healthy things like exercise, recreation, hobbies, and sleep — uninterrupted, precious sleep. Not to mention making a marriage, raising a family, and engaging with friends, neighbors, and the wider community. Or giving our aging parents the care they need and deserve.

When the two of us sat down and made a list of all the things we wanted to do outside our jobs, we realized we needed to reduce the amount of time spent at work. We also recognized that we were somewhat unique. (And, we still are.) Many of our colleagues are satisfied with a shorter list of non-work activities. Others hire more outside assistance with chores, errands, and childcare, or arrange to have live-in nannies or grandparents. And some simply require less sleep than we do, or do a more efficient job of integrating work and life. The key here is to accept the reality that you can only slice the pie so many ways. If you spend more time at work, you’ll have less time for non-work activities.

5. Be grateful that you have a choice. Whatever you decide, be grateful that you have a choice. As health professionals, we make good incomes that allow us options the majority of the world’s population simply doesn’t have.

Warren Holleman is on the editorial staff, Pulse — voices from the heart of medicine. He blogs at Work Well.  Be Well. Marsha C. Holleman is family physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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