James Chapman, DO
Kent Hospital, Warwick, RI
Residency is full of tasks that make life busy. Working shifts, studying at home, preparing for weekly lectures, and attending journal club are all part of residency life. On top of this, you are encouraged to do research, travel and present at conferences, educate students, attend interview dinners, and many other responsibilities. With all of this going on, how do we find time for activities outside of work that we enjoy to lead a balanced life? I went into emergency medicine, because I enjoy the work environment and what I do. How are we supposed to be happy during residency and beyond?
Being happy in residency starts before you even match into a program. Getting into a residency where you will be happy should be one of your goals during medical school. Be sure to do well enough in school to be competitive so that a variety of programs take interest in you. When rotating through potential residency programs and throughout the interview process, take note of whether the residents are happy. I remember going to resident dinners the night before my interview and realizing that I would not be as happy at one program versus another. I was not the right personality fit for that program. Attending the interview dinners was a vital part of my interview process.
During interviews, ask how many shifts a month each program has as well as the length of the shifts. Working a twelve-hour shift is much different than working an eight or nine-hour shift. When I get home from a nine-hour shift, I still have energy to accomplish other tasks or do something I enjoy. This can make a big difference in your quality of life during residency.
Another consideration is the length of a program. Many three-year programs require longer shifts and also require a greater number of shifts in the emergency department per month of residency. It makes financial sense to go the three-year route, but for me it is more important to be happy during my residency years than finish earlier. Getting out of residency earlier will not necessarily make one happier. Making more money for one year is not that big of a difference in the long run in our field of work.
Another tip is to apply to locations where you can be happy. Some people will not be content living in a small town, while others do not want the hassle of a large city.
Emergency medicine is competitive, and sometimes you have to make a sacrifice to get into a residency. Finding out what is most valuable to you is a key part of applying to residency programs in emergency medicine.
Once you become a resident, it is easy to get caught up in the work and responsibilities of residency. It is key to remember what made you happy prior to starting residency. Make happiness a priority! Don’t be a new person just because you are doing something new! It is imperative to take time each day for yourself.
Further, maintain relationships that you already have. If you are married or in a relationship, continue to spend time together. I try to set a time each week to go on a date with my wife. Sometimes with my schedule, this will be a morning date before a shift, but time together has made my relationship stronger and better. Your significant other is spending a large amount of time without you due to work commitments, and they deserve to have some time with you to improve the relationship. This applies to your children as well. Children need to have you in their lives. This is a period of time where you will miss some milestones, so it is vital to be there as often as possible with them.
We also need to take time out for our emotional well-being. Emergency departments are fast-paced and wear us down. Sometimes we need to step back and let our minds have a break. It is emotionally draining to see children die, families torn apart, or lives altered through injuries and addictions. This takes a toll on all of us, whether you realize it or not. Taking a break from the day-to-day tasks of residency to focus on your own well-being is important. Some people need time to meditate. Some enjoy spending time outdoors. Others exercise or do yoga. Whatever it is that is valuable to you, plan time to do it.
Some people also find peace with religion. An attending physician I know was experiencing what we call “burnout” in medicine. He found ways to change his outlook on life. He found a church that helped him, and also started attending martial arts classes with his daughter. These two choices helped calm him and ease his mind. He is still in the same job at the same facility, but he is much happier due to finding joy and balance outside of work.
Making healthy choices contributes to a balanced life. In our field of work, many people are putting themselves second to patients. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, how are you supposed to advise patients to make good decisions? Many times, I am so busy at work that I only have a few minutes to eat a snack, which tends to be unhealthy. We need to consciously think about what we are putting into our bodies. Shift work is difficult, so our bodies need rest. It is vital to your health to get plenty of sleep. Sometimes people turn to alcohol to help them through hard times. Drinking alcohol excessively or turning to other addictive substances will make lives harder in the long run. Most residency programs have resources to go to if you find that you have developed an addiction.
Several points discussed here can make one think that residency is no fun at all. I can tell you that I am happier now in residency than I ever was in medical school. Why? It is because of the decisions I have made over the last five years or so. The interview process is central to finding a residency that fits your personality. It is my priority to keep a healthy work-life balance. It is critical for me to be part of a program where the residents are happy with their jobs. Going to a program where I have the time to do other activities is a sacrifice I am willing to make.
We are so lucky to be working in this field and to be where we are today! Make sure that you recognize this fact every day and do something that brings you happiness. Physician wellness is key. Make it a focus of your life each and every day!