This is the third article of a three-part series on work-life balance in the healthcare field: The fundamentals | Realign your priorities | Addressing the system

Why is achieving work-life balance as a healthcare professional so difficult?

As noted in the first part of this three-part series, it is difficult for everyone to agree on what work-life balance really is. Without a common vocabulary on the subject, it is hard to determine to what degree you may or may not be achieving it.

As pointed out in the second article, many of the characteristics that draw a person into the profession are the same ones that keep them from addressing their own needs. Consequently, without the skills or support, many healthcare professionals do not attend to the very things they expect of their patients.

In this article, we will acknowledge another seemingly obvious issue that fundamentally affects work-life balance: the system.


Nadine A. Kassity-Krich, MBA, RN, and co-author of "First, Heal Thyself," inspires and guides clients to align themselves with their work by combining her medical background with soul. When asked about these challenges, she points out that healthcare often rewards (literally with a plaque) the "MD or Nurse of the Year," which is frequently the person who has spent most of his or her waking hours at the hospital.

Acknowledgment of great work is good, of course, but at what expense? And are great work and simply a lot of work really the same? Extra hours are often put in at the expense of care providers' own health in addition to the expense of their personal life, family life, private time, etc.

Unfortunately, this is just one example of the tradition and history of how medicine "rewards" disproportionate action. Kassity-Krich points out that while there is currently legislation looking at the number of hours certain healthcare professionals can put in consecutively, hours are just the basic things that need to be addressed before anyone can consider some kind of work life balance.

A new look at success

Once again, it is critical for a common understanding of some kind of standard when it comes to balance.

Kassity-Krich posits: "When one works 10-12 hours shifts and at all hours of the day and night and holidays, weekends, etc., how can one look at balance? How is the 40-hour work week defined, and what is the definition of balance when one may work four, five, six 12-hour shifts in a row and taking call hours and then usually at least one day to recover from this schedule?"

Historically the definition of success in medicine has been measured by credentials and number of hours at the hospital or clinic. Yet as we are encouraging patients to approach their own lives more holistically, we have to look at how we are going to support our providers in doing the same.

As we work to align the system to support patients, it will be critical to do the same for the providers. Kassity-Krich reminds us that to truly care for someone else we must care for ourselves first, and fill up our own cup so that we may fill others, as the cliche goes.

As we have seen, healthcare providers have a hard time doing this on their own. Combine those personality traits with a system that rewards providers for putting others first. and it is easy to see work-life balance is up against some inherent challenges.

So what do you do? Start small. Start by honestly acknowledging what you are doing, how you are spending your time and how it is affecting you, your life and your work. Armed with this information, see what you can do about it. Are there shifts you don't have to take? Is there time you need to deem sacred to protect your sanity and nourish your relationships?

Start setting appointments — whether it is to meet your attorney to set up your medical directives, will or power of attorney, or to just spend a minute on self-care. New habits start small. Recognize what you are doing to yourself, that you have the power to change it and take the first step toward a more balanced work life.