How Millennial Physicians Are Creating Work–Life Balance

While every generation of physicians values both their medical career and their home life, a 2017 American Medical Association survey found that 92 percent of millennial physicians rated work-life balance as a top priority.

But this driving desire for balance may not mean what older generations of doctors think it means.

What it doesn’t mean is that millennial physicians only want to punch in for 40 hours a week and never work weekends. More than anything, it seems to mean that they want their medical career to be part of their lives—not just something they have to do to get on with life.

"Millennials will enthusiastically work 60-80 hours a week if they feel like they are part of a team and what they do matters. Workers with terrible pay and hours will stay because of the community," said Amelie Karem, who speaks and consults with organizations about how to attract and retain millennial employees. 

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Discovering balance is more than time working vs. not working

"When I finished training, I thought a physician’s work-life balance was all about time; if I could keep work to this percentage of the time, my life would be balanced," reflected Nicole Davey-Ranasinghe, MD, FACR, a rheumatologist at Allergy A.R.T.S. in Amarillo, Texas, who was born in 1981—the beginning of the millennial generation.

"What I learned was that other things are what create balance. It is having a supportive community and a little more flexibility. The more control I have over my schedule, the better. If I can set my schedule to do three marathon days and two short days each week or to a few weeks of marathon days and then have a few weeks off in the summer—that makes my life work. Also, knowing that if something isn’t working, I have the power to change it."

Accommodating family needs

Another major benefit of Davey-Ranasinghe’s current work is that there is a room away from patients, with a bed and TV where her kids can come if they can’t attend a school or if childcare falls through.

Though currently working more hours than at her previous job in Colorado, she is happier. "I like that I can still be available for my family. I have a lot of peace knowing I have a place to bring my kids—that we have a safety net."

Finding medical specialties that fit lifestyles

Davey-Ranasinghe notes that millennial physicians’ preferences have dramatically changed the competitiveness of different sub-specialties.

"It used to be that most competitive specialties were the ones that paid the most," she said. "Rheumatology is one of the lowest-paid specialties and when I matched in 2011, it wasn’t very competitive, but in 2017, it was the second most competitive specialty after gastroenterology."

Fewer lifestyle demands may help explain why this specialty has become more popular among younger physicians. "A major plus of the specialty is that most of the time I’m on call, I can complete calls on my phone and I’m not getting called in to do procedures at odd hours."

Choosing physician employment vs. practice ownership

The American Medical Association and other research groups report that more young physicians are choosing positions where they are employees, rather than business owners. And many of them are opting for jobs that tend toward shift work, such as emergency medicine and hospital medicine.

Davey-Ranasinghe believes these changes are because such positions allow the doctors to have clearer demarcation between when they are working and when they are not.

Locum tenens positions have some similar benefits, allowing physicians more control of their schedules and saving them from the hassles of running their own practices.

These temporary contracts allow new physicians to build experience in a variety of settings that can advance their medical career, while allowing them to explore different work communities and living situations—all while traveling and paying off their medical school loans. 

Being role models for healthy living

The millennial generation of physicians seems to take the work-life balance and overall wellness more seriously than others, according to neurologist Daniel Giang, MD, associate dean of medical education at Loma Linda School of Medicine and chair of the American Association of Medical College’s residency affairs steering committee.

"Millennials do work hard, but they are also conscious of saying, ‘I need a break,’ and taking a week off. And they are more willing to say they need help and take the time to speak with a psychologist," he pointed out.

Kathy M. Andolsek, MD, professor of community and family medicine and assistant dean of pre-medical education, at Duke University School of Medicine, agreed.

"Millennials are calling [the older generations] out on whether or not we are living out the wellness advice we are giving patients. They see a connection between the well-being of the caregiver and quality of care, patient safety, and patient outcomes," she explained.

Changing priorities: Money is not always No. 1

Andolsek mentioned that millennial physicians seem to understand that money is not the route to happiness, which perhaps explains a trend Giang is seeing—that millennials just assume more flexibility in their training.

"Often I see residents change specialties, which was almost unheard of when I was a resident," he reflected. "They don’t seem to mind that those changes will lengthen the amount of time they spend in training; what is important is that they feel well-matched to their specialty."

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