How Busy Surgeons Can Achieve Work-Life Integration

By Mara B. Antonoff, MD

January 23, 2019

For newly practicing cardiothoracic surgeons, concerns about work-life balance typically do not surface immediately; after all, most surgeons find that a faculty position brings greater time away from the hospital and more control of one’s schedule than what might have been experienced during training. However, as your clinical practice picks up, and administrative, educational, and research opportunities accumulate, it won’t take long before you may feel pulled in multiple directions.

Discussion usually centers around the concept of work-life balance. I tend to find that work-life integration is a better descriptor of the reality of our lives, which are always filled to the max with fluctuating emphases on our time inside and outside of the hospital walls. There may never be a perfect “balance,” but assimilating all aspects of our lives is integral to achieving success, happiness, and well-being.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I have learned a few key concepts in fitting everything that I value into the limited hours in the day. I speak from the vantage point of an early career general thoracic surgeon at a major academic center with four young children and a husband with his own busy career.

Align Your Time Commitments with Your Priorities

As I began my academic career, a very wise and thoughtful mentor suggested that I clearly define my career goals and make decisions about which opportunities to take based on whether they will advance those goals. For me, this meant defining my clinical niche, research aims, leadership goals, and objectives in terms of being involved with resident education.

Whenever you are offered an opportunity, you can pause and think: Does this require considerable time or effort? Will this effort align with my career goals? If the answer is no, you may want to take a pass. 

Once you have defined your goals, it gives you a framework to consider. Whenever you are offered an opportunity, you can pause and think: Does this require considerable time or effort? Will this effort align with my career goals? If the answer is no, you may want to take a pass. 

Of course, some efforts may be pathways to greater goals. If you’re asked to do a case that’s not in your exact area of greatest interest, but you’re trying to grow your practice and this case would help you build referral patterns, then it may be worth it. If you’re asked to collaborate on a study that isn’t in your area of research, it may not be a reasonable allocation of your time and effort.

This line of thinking also works quite well outside of work. My personal priorities include spending time with my husband and children, raising my children to have the same values that my husband and I share, staying fit and upholding a healthy lifestyle, and maintaining relationships with friends and family. 

When I’m given the opportunity to teach my children and their classmates about lung cancer, I jump at the chance because it’s important for me to show my kids what I do and why, as well as share my knowledge with children interested in science. When certain volunteer opportunities at my children’s school don’t feel worthwhile to me because they don’t allow me to spend time with my children or focus on the values that I want to share with them, I turn them down. 

Whether it’s at work or at home, it’s incredibly helpful to have goals so you can stop and think about whether the time and effort that you plan to spend will advance one of your priorities.

Don’t Be Afraid to Outsource

Accepting help is an important part of achieving work-life integration. At work, surround yourself with people you trust and give them opportunities to assist you, whether it’s seeking clinical support from midlevel providers or turning over the maintenance of your calendar and CV to an administrative assistant. This frees up more time for you to focus on operating, teaching, conducting research, or other career goals. 

Likewise, the same outsourcing principle applies at home! You might know how to rotate your own tires, mow your own lawn, or deep clean the carpets, but if these things don’t contribute to your personal goals, then they may not be worth the effort. We outsource cleaning our house and maintaining our yard. Sometimes, I even order my groceries online and let someone else pick them out and deliver them. I pay for childcare so that I can spend an evening out with my spouse or catch a workout class. Accepting help may truly be the key to creating enough time for you to reach your goals. 

Recognize the Rollercoaster

Finally, acknowledge that there always will be high and low points in life. Sometimes, you will be very busy clinically and face academic and administrative deadlines at the same time. However, there will also be slow moments when you are wishing for more patients and wondering how to get more referrals. This is the natural ebb and flow of surgical practice. During the busy, difficult times, keep on plugging; with regression to the mean, it’ll get easier before you know it. It’s normal to get in a slump and feel that nothing is going right. To get through the hard times, seek out mentors, confide in seasoned colleagues, and focus on the end goals. 

Finally, acknowledge that there always will be high and low points in life.

Finding the perfect balance is probably very difficult to achieve. However, integrating personal and professional aspects of your life is entirely possible, and I hope that these tips may be useful in achieving that end.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.


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