“We see first-hand what matters most to people when they must pause and take stock of their lives. People almost always hope for more time with family and friends. They rarely wish for more time at work.
As a palliative care physician I feel a sense of obligation to honour my patient’s priorities by finding balance between the passion I have for my work and leaving time for my family.”
– Dr Bridget Johnson
“During your JMO years you might not get to live the perfect work-life balance, but it’s precisely the time to be planning for it. The good news is that it’s achievable.”
– Dr Chris Elliot
There isn’t much work-life balance when you’re a JMO. You lack control of your roster, there are mandatory terms to do, plenty of overtime and an abundance of shift work. If you’re unlucky, you might look at the registrars, fellows and consultants you work with and struggle to find someone who lives the kind of work-life balance you aspire to. If that sounds familiar, then this blog is for you. We’re going to share with you the practical lessons we’ve learned on the journey to achieving our ideal work-life balance. The aim of the blog is to show you how you can do the same (spoiler alert: there are significant challenges, you can overcome them). During your JMO years you might not get to live the perfect work-life balance, but it’s precisely the time to be planning for it. The good news is that it’s achievable.
We are Dr Bridget Johnson, a consultant palliative care physician, and Dr Chris Elliot, a consultant paediatrician. We are a very lucky couple. We have both ended up as consultant physicians in subspecialties we love. Our qualification for writing about work-life balance is simply that we’ve thought about it a lot, planned for it, worked hard at it, and are happy with what we’ve achieved. More on that later.
During our JMO years work-life balance was only whispered or complained about, never openly planned for. We thought that admitting to aspirations of balancing work with anything else would make us look uncommitted to our profession, threatening training and employment opportunities. Anecdotally this situation has become worse rather than better in the increasingly competitive JMO job market. Therefore rather than ask JMOs to start an open conversation about work-life balance, better that we do. Hopefully you find it helpful.
We are both the kind of people who think of Medicine as a vocation rather than a job. We are passionate about our work, and in many ways we are defined by being doctors. Ironically, then, it has been our work that has taught us the importance of work-life balance. In our specialties we are privileged to care for people through critical times in their lives: birth, the illness of a loved one, death. We see first-hand what matters most to people when they must pause and take stock of their lives. People almost always hope for more time with family and friends. They rarely wish for more time at work.
Actively planning for work-life balance is our way of respecting and honouring the lessons our patients have taught us about what is important. The balance we have found leaves room for our passion for Medicine, but it also allows us time with each other and our children. This isn’t simply about working less, it’s also about better understanding our patients and their priorities, and helping us provide better care when they need us.
We think so. Here’s a quick summary of what we have and how we got here:
We started medical school on the same day, graduated from University on the same day, sat our respective RACP physician’s exams on the same day, and received our FRACP consultant physician letters on the same day, 15 years after we first met. In that time we studied, dated, married, worked, lived overseas and had 2 children (now 2 and 5 years old).
We currently each work 3 days per week. The majority of those days are as staff specialist physicians in teaching hospitals in Sydney, plus Chris does a small amount of private work. In any given working week we both work one day in common and our children have a nanny. The remaining six days per week one or the other (or both) of us is at home with the kids or available for preschool drop-off and pick-up. We are each on-call about 1 in 10 days. We take our study leave and annual leave. Our mortgage is under control. We work hard and we love our jobs passionately. Like other parents we also love spending time at the park, at the zoo, playing Lego, helping at preschool, visiting our extended families and worrying that we are doing a terrible job of raising our children.
This is not a happy accident. It took us 10 years of deliberate strategic planning to make this happen.
Simultaneously the most significant reason for, and challenge to, our work-life balance are our children. Even if you don’t have or want children, you will (should, must!) have significant passions outside of medicine that will compete with your career for your time and energy. In this blog we will write about our children, but the same lessons apply no matter what you pursue.
It’s easy to write our journey in two short paragraphs, but consider the two young people, one male and one female, on that first day of medical school. What would have to happen such that 15 years later both students finish their specialist physicians training programs and graduate on the same day, and yet the couple have two children? How is it that the female doctor could take 9 months off with her first child and 12 months off with the second but still graduate at the same time as the male doctor? The answer is nothing more, but also nothing less, than sharing. Sharing study time, work time, childrearing, housework, opportunities, success. Whether you’re already in a partnership or still hoping for one, sharing matters to work-life balance.
In our experience, there are five elements to consider. We intend to tackle each of these elements in a blog; one per month. Here is a preview of the five elements so you can see what’s coming up:
The pressure to make the grade as a “good doctor” is enormous on all of us, but especially on JMOs. It significantly impairs our ability to judge the usefulness and opportunity cost of all those work-related activities we are told we should be doing (presentations, audits, courses, research, consults, committees, teaching anyone?). In this part we’ll tackle how to judge whether it makes sense to take that opportunity you’ve just been offered by a friendly consultant/JMO manager or other well-meaning colleague, and what characteristics make an opportunity a good choice.
Even if you don’t know exactly where you are going, there are common milestones in the early career of all doctors. Knowing what they are and planning for the inevitable clashes with family, hobbies, relationships and finances is essential for achieving balance. We’ll talk you through the predictable milestones and suggest a way you can plan ahead.
This is hard. It’s also necessary. We’ll share some experiences of when we should have said no to Medicine (but didn’t, and what that taught us), and our ideas on how you can learn to do it in the right way and at the right time.
Just as hard as saying “no” and just as important. How do you do it, what happens if you ask but don’t receive, and how do you get what you want without damaging your reputation? We’ve done this the right way, the wrong way, and have paid the price for not asking; we’ll share what we learned.
We did not find out how much we would earn as specialists until the day we received our first employment contracts. That’s crazy, so we’ll share with you some broad figures to guide your financial planning. We’ll also discuss the financial implications of working less than full-time, and the kind of planning and compromises you might need to consider if that’s your intention.
Until next month…
Good luck out here.
Bridget and Chris
About Chris and Bridget: We’re two consultant physicians sharing what we’ve learned about achieving work-life balance in Medicine.