Physicians know about time management. You’ve been beating conflicting priorities into submission since your earliest days in medical school. Still, when you’re shifting between multiple locum assignments, it’s easy to focus on urgencies and put your own well-being on the back burner. Here are five strategies for avoiding physician burnout that can help you maintain peak energy and clarity, while protecting your own quality of life along the way.
Unless physical fitness is a driving passion in your life, exercise can be one of the first things to go when you’re in a time crunch. Here are a few strategies that may work for you.
- Fit micro workouts into your daily routine. Maybe you don’t have time for a long run, bike ride, or other forms of extended cardio-vascular activity, but steps add up. Can you take meetings while you’re walking or avoid elevators in favor of stairs? How about breaking up paperwork with stretches, chair dips or an occasional plank?
- Consider locations that offer physical activities you enjoy. Incremental activity adds up, but it may not be enough to stay on track with your fitness goals. Many Weatherby Healthcare physicians choose assignments near mountain or coastal areas with amenities like skiing, climbing, biking, or other activities that help build strength and endurance while you recharge outside of work.
- Negotiate downtime to fit your exercise preferences. It’s often possible for your locum tenens consultant to create protected personal time for you in your contract with the facility. That may show up as fixed hours per day, or a particular ratio of days on to days off over the length of the assignment. The important thing is to talk openly with your consultant about your needs.
Another shortcut that can drain your energy fast is cutting corners on nutrition. It can be tempting to opt for convenience foods or skip meals altogether when you’re working long hours. Here are a few tricks to make healthy eating less of a challenge on assignment.
- Skim road warrior cookbooks for ideas. You’re not the first person to struggle with this. There are countless online shopping lists and recipes to help you stock up in advance on tasty and nutritious meals on the run. Even if you have no blood sugar issues yourself, Dr. Mark Hyman’s Blood Sugar Solution menus are ideal for fighting fat, fatigue, and brain fog.
- Consider outsourcing. There are a number of foodie-tested online subscription services out there like Plated or Hello Fresh. They eliminate the shopping and planning, but you still have to cook. Companies like Freshly offer fully cooked meals that are ready to eat in two minutes, but they currently only deliver to 17 western states.
- Revisit your housing options. When your consultant works with the housing team on your living arrangements, ask them to look into the amenities closest to your home or work facility. If possible, try to land near stores and restaurants that offer healthier food options. National grocers like Sprouts, Trader Joe’s and Whole foods often have time-saving nutritious meals that are ready to eat.
Many locums physicians miss out on onboarding advantages that can reduce stress and help them get more out of their time off. There are things your consultant can help you with on the front end of your assignment, and there are things you can do for yourself ahead of time.
- Do your homework. As you narrow down your preferred assignment locations, do as much research as you can on the region. How easy is it to get around? Will the travel out and back be manageable? Are there sights and activities you’ll enjoy on your time off? Are there suitable housing options near the facility where you’ll be working?
- Plan for orientation. How soon will the facility expect you to take on a full patient load? Often, you can build things like EMR training into your paid work schedule. Also, make sure that paperwork expectations, like patient histories, are accounted for when you’re working through contract details with your consultant. Things like this can add unplanned hours to your day.
- Invest a few of your own days the first time. When you’re taking an assignment in a location you’ve never visited before, some locums veterans recommend going early. Giving yourself a day or two extra to explore the surroundings and get acclimated can be an advantage when you’re starting a brand new assignment.
4. Time off
Sometimes work schedules are dictated by the facility need that created the assignment in the first place. Still, keep in mind that many aspects of your time off may be negotiable. It’s important to stay in touch with your consultant and make sure they know your personal needs before the assignment is booked.
- Be transparent. Your consultant can help you best when you’re clear about your personal requirements. Are you traveling alone or with family? Is there anyone in your household with special health concerns? Do you have aging parents that might need your attention on short notice? With enough advance planning, all these factors and more can be addressed.
- Pay attention to days and hours. Again, there may be less wiggle room here depending on the original needs of the facility in your specialty. Make sure your consultant knows about your interests and who you are outside of work. This will help them to negotiate the best available options for time off in blocks that will help you maintain the balance you need.
- Save non-negotiable time for one special recharge activity. If you’re the type who reads pulmonology papers at night for entertainment, then work itself likely refills your tank every day. For most others, there’s often something outside of work that brings you the mental refresh you need to keep going. Find that joyful thing that makes you lose track of time, and make sure that you’ve built some protected time into your schedule to enjoy it on a regular basis.
5. Learning to say no
This is probably the toughest area for most physicians to set boundaries, since they’re conditioned to prioritize other people’s emergencies. In his book Essentialism, author Greg McKeown suggests that it’s possible to improve quality of life by choosing to do fewer things, but do them better.
- Let go of the multi-tasking myth. Athough it’s technically possible to DO more than one thing at a time, it’s really not possible for any of us to THINK about more than one thing at a time. You’ll only be able to take so much of your personal life with you on assignment. Make sure you’re saying yes to the few things that really add the most value to your time off.
- Stay connected to your consultant. Sometimes communication breaks down, or circumstances change, and things may not turn out as expected when you first arrive on assignment. Your locum tenens consultant is in a great position to negotiate on your behalf and get things back on track, whether it’s a work procedure, a housing detail, or a personal emergency.
Avoiding physician burnout – balance and perspective
It was this kind of self-evaluation that started pediatric neurologist Dr. Steve Kinsman on the locum tenens path to begin with. Dr. Kinsman said, “The big issues are around trying to plan your workload at the site so you do have downtime. It’s hard because you’re usually on call the whole stint. Trying to get the site to give you some time without call is one way. Another is to take advantage of the usual decrease in commute time that the locums lifestyle affords. Finally, my wife Kelli and I take advantage of my time off between stints to do fun things as well as day to day tasks that can’t be done while away, such as banking.”
Every so often, it’s a worthwhile practice to take a few minutes alone and rate your quality of life in each of these 5 areas. If you’ve identified one or two categories with room for improvement, try some of these tips and see how they work for you. The more you take care of yourself, the more you’ll be able to take care of others, at home and at work. Have you found others that work well for you on assignment? We’d love to hear about them here.