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A year into my training in cardiothoracic surgery, I experienced a dramatic reduction in my work hours. During my first year, I worked about 80 hours per week, which is the standard at most busy academic programs. Then in my second year, I started a rotation at a community hospital where my work hours decreased to about 60 hours per week.
I relished this opportunity to restore my work-life balance, which is something we all seem and need to be striving for — right now the United States ranks 30th out of 38 countries in work-life balance. On the surface this opportunity offered everything I needed: more time, energy, and protected “golden” weekends (which means having both Saturday and Sunday off). Leading up to this transition, I envisioned a life filled with new enriching experiences such as developing new hobbies or spending time with family and friends.
Indeed, the first week of this new pace was like coming across an oasis. I was able to quench my most essential needs such as sleep, nutrition, and exercise. I attended long-postponed doctors and dental appointments. I felt energized to reclaim all of the activities and relationships that had been pushed off due to work.
However, to my surprise, I quickly realized that my personal life had now become relatively empty and quiet, a consequence of having prioritized work over the years. My family remained half a world away in South Korea. Relationships I had failed to nurture while immersed in parts of training — the missed phone calls, weddings, and birthdays — were now distant. Invitations to events that had once vitalized my social life had halted. It was a paradoxical realization that despite having looked forward to resuming my “life” for so long, I now found myself growing restless in my spare time, a feeling I could not have imagined only a few weeks prior. I paced around my apartment looking for something to do, a new purpose that would rescue me from this unfulfilling lull.
When I could not find an easy solution, it was only a matter of time until I began to turn back to work to fill this void. By the end of the month, I had committed to several new work projects until I was essentially working the same number of hours as during my busiest months in residency.
Experiencing residency firsthand and listening to my colleagues has given me an unshakable impression of the seriousness of maintaining work-life balance. It is all too easy to allow work to encroach upon our lives, with unrelenting work hours and call schedules. What little free time we have is still hard to protect, as we may bring home emotional burdens from work such as feelings of inadequacy after a challenging patient encounter or a personal failure.
In order to create a work-life balance and protect from burnout, we need to fundamentally change the way we portray and conceive of work-life balance. Here are three tips to get you there.
1. Think of work and life as two forces in a state of equilibrium.
The best way to preserve your well-being, while keeping that ideal balance between work and ongoing priorities, is to change the way you view that balance.
Currently, there seems to be an underlying assumption that work is something that we can always adjust, while life is something that remains in the background; hence the colloquial saying, “Work is taking over our lives.” We assume that once we peel away work, life will rebound seamlessly. Thus, initiatives that aim to restore work-life balance focus on curbing work-related stressors. We rarely discuss the converse, which is the importance of nurturing and protecting our personal lives, perhaps because it is a less exact and more complicated formula.
Instead of thinking of work as something that encroaches on life, envision work and life as two forces that are in a state of equilibrium. In equilibrium, if we stop or slow down our efforts in one aspect (life), things inevitably proceed in the direction of the other (work). But to truly restore work-life balance and stave off burnout, you have to actively nurture life with attention and effort. Only then can life flourish when the demands of work subside.
2. Take the time you need to nurture your life — don’t consider personal priorities an afterthought.
Nurturing life is something that takes as much work as work itself. Don’t take for granted the substances which keep our lives vital. When work was busy, I always imagined that it would only briefly dampen my life. For this reason, I had allowed myself to neglect the relationships and interests that typically comprise my life, such as music. In order to maintain your equilibrium, you have to make the time to protect your priorities outside of work.
When I realized the shift in my own work-life balance, I began to approach my relationships and hobbies with the same methodical rigor as I do my work. I now keep track of when I last spoke to dear friends and reach out when it’s been more than a month. Admittedly, in the beginning it can feel a little forced, but that never has overshadowed the joy of staying in touch with friends. Just because you have to remind yourself to go the gym does not make it any less rewarding.
3. Understand your priorities and values before you shift the equilibrium.
No matter where we work or what we do, our discussion of work-life balance must go beyond the superficial. An equilibrium that is shifted only on the surface will always return to where it first began. Only by taking the time to understand your own priorities, values, and motivations based on your personal preference for a work-life balance can you get the fulfillment you need. That takes being truly honest with ourselves.
In the past several months, I have begun to put time and effort again into the forces that keep my life full. It has been an active and conscious process. I hope it will remain that way for as long as I work.
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