Some time ago, I wrote about job enrichment and the importance of factors like achievement, recognition, interesting work, responsibility, advancement, and personal growth in building sustainable jobs that one can do for a career. Unfortunately, making our jobs richer and more fulfilling is rarely something that others will do proactively for us. And we are often just too stuck in our daily grind of clinical care, documentation, dealing with patients, families, and other members of the care team, and simply navigating the vast complexities of our healthcare organizations to seek out job enrichment opportunities for ourselves.
Recently, I’ve been thinking more broadly about the role of work in our overall lives and whether there are things we can do in our world outside of work that can help make our work more enjoyable and sustainable. There is so much being written about work-life balance; a Google search turns up about 1.5 billion – with a B! – results. Every expert wants to offer “Six Tips for Better Work-Life Balance” or a guide to helping you manage your work-life balance. Too many of these articles seem overly simplistic to me or not practical enough; or else the recommendations require major life remodeling that may be beyond the capacity of people caught in an unfulfilling and stressful work rut.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos considers “work-life balance” to be a debilitating phrase, since it “implies a strict trade-off between the two.” Instead he advocates better integration of work and life in a way that improves the harmony between them. That idea resonates with me, but still feels painfully conceptual.
I’m no expert in these things and certainly don’t know all the answers. But I can tell you about a few of the things that have helped me reduce work-related stress, improve work-life harmony, and avoid burnout throughout my career. These things have become my “life enrichment” strategy.
Taking Care of My Body
There was a time earlier in my career when I weighed about 50 pounds more than I do now, ate whatever satisfied my craving in the moment, and never, ever exercised because I was just too tired at the end of the day to do more than sack out in front of the TV. That was the same period that I was the most stressed at work, and when I experienced the greatest symptoms of burnout. So which was the cause and which was the effect? Did I stop taking care of myself because I was too stressed at work, or did I get too stressed at work because I was not taking care of myself? Hard to say, and for many people I think it’s a vicious downward cycle. But I quit that job, became my own boss, and started exercising, eating better, and losing weight.
Over the course of my professional career, I have found that two of the most important things for me to do consistently if I want to have energy to deal with challenging work issues are engaging in meaningful exercise at least four or five times a week, and consistently getting seven to eight hours of sleep at night. It doesn’t really matter what type of exercise it is: it might be the elliptical, or weight training, or yoga, or just a good long walk. They all help me feel better and sleep better, and they all help me feel better about myself. When I start cutting corners with sleep or exercise, I start getting myself into trouble at work. I feel more stressed, have a shorter temper, and have less mental capacity to focus and be creative. So I have made exercise and sleep a core part of my personal “life enrichment” strategy.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And Leslie a dull girl. I have a tendency to take myself too seriously. So I have had to learn to consciously put myself in situations that call for me to let go and just have fun. I have deliberately cultivated a robust social life. One of the benefits for me in socializing – especially with folks I don’t work with and who don’t know anything about healthcare – is that it takes my mind off work and puts me mentally and emotionally in a completely different place. It helps me to disconnect from work and work-related worries.
Do you have people you spend time with outside of work purely because you enjoy their company? Or because you have a common interest that binds you together? My husband and I have a small group of local friends who meet once a month to taste and talk about wine together. We have other friends we play music with (I am a modest guitar player, and love to sing harmony). We spent several weeks in Italy this summer with our grown daughters and their families, and have undertaken other travel both alone and with family or friends. Occasionally “fun” for me is just carving out a Saturday afternoon in which I have absolutely nothing I need to do. Maybe I’ll make a big pot of Bolognese. Or read a book. Or go for a walk. Or lounge around on the couch watching favorite movies I’ve seen dozens of times before.
These types of things are a priority for me, and I believe that regularly investing in fun and adventure has helped me cultivate resilience to better manage challenges at work.
Nurturing My Spirit
I’m not trying to preach. But it’s clear – to me at least – that we are each of us so much more than a collection of cells and neurons; more than just a body and a conscious mind. That spiritual part of us yearns for a connection with a Higher Being. My Christian faith is my greatest life-enrichment tool; it helps me to focus on a much bigger picture and to keep daily frustrations in perspective. And I have found that I am able to tolerate much more stress and dysfunction at work – and to achieve more – when I have regular communion with God and spend time with people who believe and worship as I do and who support me in my spiritual walk. So whether it is in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or on a mountaintop, I encourage you to seek out places and people who can help you nurture your spiritual self and your connection to God.
To be clear, I haven’t always been successful at consistently doing these things. There are times in my life when I let them slip for one reason or another. And I also realize that every person is different. Different personalities, different emotional needs, different interests. Different family and life situations. So your life enrichment strategy will probably be different from mine.
But we all need a life-enrichment strategy. We only get one chance at this. When you look back on your life 10, 20, or 30 years from now, do you want the defining characteristic of this time in your life to be the stress and burnout you were experiencing at work? Or do you want to look back on a time when a rich life in many other areas helped you build resilience and effectively manage your many work-related challenges?
This article originally appeared on January 24, 2019 in: The Society of Hospital Medicine’s Official Blog, The Hospital Leader