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Spring 2023 - Safety

COVID-19 Year Three: How Medical Professionals Can Balance Life, Family and Practice

Is finding a healthy work-life balance possible in the post-pandemic world?

Even before the pandemic upended the U.S. healthcare system, many medical professionals already lacked a sense of healthy balance between their work and personal lives. But the COVID-19 virus’s chaotic arrival changed the very way that medical facilities and providers function, and the disorientation meant a flood of extra work and stress for everyone on the front line. Now, three years later, the aftermath of the taxing workload is striking.

For example, before COVID-19, 75 percent of U.S. physicians stated they were happy while at work, but today only 48 percent can say that, and 84 percent of U.S. physicians stated they were happy outside of their workday, but that percentage is down to 58.1 Further, even though the end of the pandemic has approached, staffing shortages, burnout and exhaustion continue to leave many providers struggling to manage all of their responsibilities in both clinical settings and at home.

It’s no wonder that when asked in a 2022 survey conducted by health staffing firm CHG Health, 85 percent of new physicians said work-life balance is the top factor to consider when choosing a new job. Released early this year, the survey says that number shows a noteworthy uptick (22 percent) since the 2018 survey. “This increase is significant but not surprising,” a firm representative explains, “when compared to similar surveys that have found physicians’ attitudes toward the importance of wellness and work-life balance are changing in the wake of the pandemic.” Work schedule and location were tied at 83 percent for the second most important factors when doctors were selecting a first job.2

It’s not just medical professionals that need a healthy standard for living well: Any professional would benefit from finding ways to develop peace and contentment with the way they live their lives each day. But if people have attempted to find this ostensible nirvana for decades, why haven’t more of them discovered that elusive space? Maybe it has to do with the fact that society is often trapped in old mindsets. Insanity, as Einstein allegedly said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

It’s time to look at why the “work-life balance” concept is unhelpful, and to consider fresh alternatives to the punishing perception with a more helpful and realistic mindset.

Rethinking Standards

Since the 1970s and 1980s, when the term “work-life balance” was coined, its nebulous ideal has been held up as the gold standard by which people’s work success and overall well-being are judged. Its basic premise could be boiled down to this: The less time one spends at work, the more time one has for more important and fulfilling areas of “real” life such as family, friends, hobbies and themselves.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this idea of work-life balance is crazy. In fact, it’s an impossible standard to meet, and sets people up for guilt and shame. Under this unspoken mandate of “balance,” a person can be forced into all-or-nothing thinking. To illustrate, imagine someone misses several of their children’s extracurricular sports to provide coverage during a staffing shortage or to help during another crisis at work. Even if this happens only a handful of times per season, that person still might feel as if they’re failing their kids — and in failing their kids, they might feel that they’re failing themselves and the rest of their family. Depending on how much credence that person gives to the idea of achieving an ideal work-life balance, catastrophizing the situation sets in. They might even begin to wonder if their life is emptier because of their “failure.”

Yes, that seems extreme — and for many, it is. Still, it happens to those who strive to achieve the mythical “balance” that is continually pushed by magazines and talk shows. This type of either/or mindset is unhealthy, although it seems to be the pall under which millions of Americans operate. In reality, it’s odd and awkward to separate one’s “real” life from one’s work life. Separating the two is a bit like separating platelets from red blood cells: Neither operate on their own, and they are both important parts of the whole. Any type of work is an integral part of one’s overall life, not just a fragmented piece of it. Work is not a burden that somehow encroaches on “real” life.

Still, American culture tends to arbitrarily prescribe a certain amount of vacation or other time off for pleasure that each professional “must” take to escape work. If someone doesn’t take that time, then, again, he or she might be judged — and even judge themselves — as failing their families and, somehow, not living up to society’s “best life” standards. Erroneously, workaholism “must” be a factor for such people.

A healthier perspective is less punishing or black-and-white: The integration of work and life into one cohesive whole is a perspective that realizes no one can ever have it all and do it all, let alone perfectly. Simply put, it is possible for people to use their time more equitably. Yes, there will be days when healthcare professionals work 16-hour shifts (or more), and they will have to devote less time to other areas of life that day, but a tradeoff may be a four-day workweek or an additional day off. One must simply make adjustments as needed.

If this sounds easier said than done, it may be helpful to note that human resources (HR) departments across the country are gradually working to view this more holistically. Rather than seeing work hours in terms of what they take away from employees’ other responsibilities, family time and hobbies, HR is increasingly redirecting employees’ mindsets, helping them to see their lives as a whole, and not as divided into identically sized sections that must be continuously maintained equally to achieve success.

Asking Questions and Seeing Alternatives

How, then, do people begin to change the way they view the integration of work and life, and then do something about it? In his article “Work Life Balance Is Becoming Work Life Integration,” author, speaker and futurist Jacob Morgan wrote that it’s virtually impossible to avoid merging work with life. People, therefore, would be smart to align their goals and experiences to create the life they want.3 And creating the life they want comes down to decisions — what one wants more of and what one wants less of — and then approaching each day with those decisions in mind. No matter the choices one makes, one must fully accept the fact that their decisions and desires will never line up perfectly with their ideals for each day, every day. Each day is different, and each person is different. Every day is an opportunity for people to continue the self-correcting journey of weighing what’s most important for that moment.

Questions to Ask and Answers to Consider

When attempting to make mindful, realistic lifestyle choices to create an intentional, peaceful life, it can help to consider the following questions and their inevitable answers:

1) What am I trying to balance? (Knowing that, whatever it is, the balance will never be 50/50.)

2) What do I want more of? (Knowing that, whatever it is, the desire will never be perfectly attainable.)

3) What do I want less of? (The keyword here is “less.” “None” is rarely, if ever, part of the equation.)

4) What is preventing me from having the life I want? (Whatever it is, it will likely never fully disappear, but it’s possible to learn to navigate around it.)

5) Who am I trying to impress, if anyone?

6) What is driving my choices?

Many people might be surprised at what they learn from asking themselves these questions and considering their answers. No one likes to admit it, but the desire to keep up with the Joneses is alive and well for many. And although people’s motives are often good, what drives them still might be a bit tainted by jealousy or anger, especially when proving a point to someone who doubted them, which makes enjoying life difficult.

More Myths, and the Truths

It’s also helpful to look at some of the myths surrounding “work-life balance” in light of the truths that debunk them.

Myth: Everything in life can be well-balanced.

Truth: If people believe that it is possible for everything in life to always be well-balanced, they might consider investing stock in dotcoms. (In other words, efforts to achieve perfection will inevitably fail.)

Myth: Working less equals feeling happier.

Truth: Quantity does not trump quality. It’s not about how many hours people work versus how many hours they spend doing something they love. It’s about the quality of how they’re spending their time regardless of circumstance.

Myth: People can and should always be able to avoid distractions and stress.

Truth: No one can completely avoid distractions or stress, but they can be selective about how they spend their time and energy, and they can determine the right actions to take at the right time.

Summing It Up

Striving to fit all the things we have to do, as well as all the things we want to do, into one day or week is nearly impossible, so it’s no wonder trying to do so typically leads to guilt or frustration — or both (especially for young professionals with growing families since the additional obligations during that stage of life are many).

People will rarely if ever feel effortlessly comfortable navigating the demands of all their daily tasks. It often feels more like juggling balls or spinning plates on a stick than balancing responsibilities with poise — and that’s OK. Determining what’s most important from one day to the next is hard! But culture does not get to dictate how you do it, what your success should look like or how you feel about it. That is unique to each individual, and no one can make those decisions for anyone else. And no matter your choices, you must radically accept the fact that your choices will not line up perfectly with the traditional, arbitrary time slots that seem to dictate your days. You might get into a good routine, but things will inevitably line up irregularly sometimes, and you must learn how to surf the waves of each day. Every one of them is a new opportunity to self-correct as you navigate the never-ending journey of determining what you want “more of” and “less of” in your life. Each day brings new challenges and luxuries, and every day is a juggling act to determine which aspect of life gets your attention when.

Picture a seesaw: It’s perfectly balanced for roughly half a second before it’s “disturbed” again. It’s constantly adjusting, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. That’s not a bad metaphor for all aspects of our obligations, wants and needs, actually. The trick is not to try to keep the seesaw perfectly balanced, but instead learn how to enjoy the ride.


  1. McKenna, J. Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report 2023: Contentment Amid Stress. Medscape, Jan. 20, 2023. Accessed at
  2. Payerchin, R. New Physicians Want Work-Life Balance in First Job, Survey Says. Medical Economics, March 11, 2022. Accessed at
  3. Alton, L. The Evolution From Work-Life Balance to Work-Life Integration. ADP. Accessed at:
Meredith Whitmore
Meredith Whitmore is a freelance writer and clinical mental health professional based in the Pacific Northwest.