We all know that we should be taking care of ourselves first. Physically, we should be getting regular exercise, sleeping well, and eating well. Mentally and emotionally, we should be taking vacations, spending time with friends, and finding an outlet of something that we enjoy. We all know that we should have a mentor inside as well as outside of work. But even with knowing all of this, how many of us are doing it?
How many of you have a smartphone? How many of you feel lost without it? Do you carry it to the office or the playground with the kids? How many of you have taken a vacation in the last 3 months? 6 months? Did you check your email while you were there? Are you available to everyone, all the time? Should you be?
Emergency medicine is a stressful job by nature. The chaotic environment, the unexpected trauma, the all-too often reality of breaking bad news are just a few of the factors that make our job a challenging one. When you add nursing shortages, overcrowding, patient boarding and other institutional factors beyond our control to the mix, it’s amazing to me that we all go back to work day after day, willingly and often happily! This apparent contradiction is most likely explained by the personality type attracted to EM as a specialty. As a whole, the EM community tends to be a unique breed of high-functioning, over-achieving perfectionists who attack everything with gusto.
We thrive in our chaotic clinical environment abut also push each other to succeed away from the bedside as evidenced by our field taking the lead in educational arenas such as FOAM. In addition, not only do we work hard, but we play hard. How many of your colleagues have run a marathon, climbed a mountain, or have pushed themselves through some insane physical challenge in the last couple of weeks? How many of you have done the same?
As female physicians, the reality is that we bring additional challenges to the table. Mother, daughter, wife, friend, confidant, mentor. We women tend to fill our downtime with rewarding, stimulating but complicated relationships.
The to-do list is never truly empty. As technology continues to advance quickly, the potential of 24/7 additions to the list is a harsh reality. Although the advantages of being so easily connected are many, the drawbacks are also very real.
I recently found myself on modified bed rest during our annual family vacation. Although the sounds and smells of the ocean were still quite restorative, it became a working vacation as I could easily “just check my email” or “just look at the schedule” while I was alone. The result? Less emails in my inbox and a schedule ready for publication but in reality, I’m not sure I really helped myself. Because I was “able” to work, I carried the mental stress of the job with me to the beach. Not exactly the ingredients for a GREAT vacation.
The specifics of each person’s situation will vary and that variation will impact what the correct answer to achieving work-life integration and satisfaction should be. I don’t think that specifics matter as much as the generalities. In general, I think that “leaning in” is something that we should all do, but I’d like to propose a reminder to “lean out” too.
Take some time to truly “turn off”—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Disconnect for a day or a week but make sure to disconnect and recharge your battery. Believe it or not, the world will continue and the chaos of the job will be there for you when you get back.
This column is not meant to add to the guilt that many of us already feel but rather to encourage some self-reflection and thought. Ask yourself when you last truly “turned off.” If the answer is within the last week or month, good for you! If you can’t honestly remember when the last time that you “turned off”—where you were not reachable for a period of time, when your smartphone was not in your hand, when you were truly living in the moment—then I suggest you take that time right now.
Put this column down and TURN OFF. Think about what makes you happy. Hug your family, call a friend, go for a run, or play a game of Candy Land without worrying about how long it takes your three-year-old to pick a card. Live in that moment for that moment and then you can go back to “leaning in” and being a stellar academic emergency physician.
A version of this article was originally published in the AWAEM Awareness newsletter September-October 2014.