Doctors without ‘me time’ are a lesson for us all

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A new study finds that early-career doctors—and the rest of us—can be better at our jobs if we simply set aside as little as 30 minutes a day for some “me time.”

The alternative, the study finds, is a scenario in which the patient may suffer.

“You have to be in a good place to be able to give your all to someone else.”

The study finds that active recovery activities like exercising and volunteering can help employees recover quickly and respond better to their jobs’ demands.

Researchers focused on the work and rest patterns of 38 early-career physicians from a teaching hospital in the Southeast. Of the participants, 63.2 percent were male and the median age was 29. The typical physician can average an 80-hour workweek, leaving little opportunity for leisure and sleep.

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“Residents are a very unique population, the stressors that they engage with throughout the day are a lot more significant than those of the average American. Therefore, these moments of replenishment are that much more important,” says Nicole Cranley, the study’s lead researcher. Cranley did the research while a doctoral candidate in University of Florida’s department of behavioral science and community health and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Active relaxation

The study assessed the time early-career physicians spend at work versus the time they spent on sleep and leisure, their ability to detach from work during non-work hours, and whether they engaged in active or passive recovery activities.

Physicians ranked activities they engaged in at home and at work for how draining or energy-boosting they were.

The results show that the time early-career physicians spent on work exceeded the time they spent on sleep and leisure activities combined—and although eating was the most highly ranked at-work activity, even lunch breaks were consumed by work.

“They grab things and go, or they are eating while they are in conference or listening to a lecture. There really isn’t that time when they are not doing something related to work,” Cranley says.

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Researchers also found that the participants had trouble psychologically detaching from work and that they engaged in more passive forms of recovery in their non-work time. While passive recovery, like watching television, is not necessarily harmful, it also does not help to boost energy levels beyond the baseline like active recovery activities can.

Approaching burnout

These patterns of working without taking time to recover fully can lead to burnout.

“Burnout is a serious issue,” says Cranley, “It’s usually related to the fact that you’re not taking enough time for self-care or engaging in activities that help you gain back some of those resources.”

Higher levels of burnout, she says, lead to higher rates of poor-quality patient care.

“You can only effectively care for someone if you are in a good state of mind. You have to be in a good place to be able to give your all to someone else,” she says.

One way to replenish resources is engaging in active recovery activities outside of work, no matter how little time is available to engage in those activities.

“It doesn’t matter if you only have 45 minutes to go to the gym—you take those 45 minutes for yourself,” Cranley says.

She says the study’s findings provide the groundwork to improve physician self-care and medical education.

“It’s a very unique situation that residents are in because they are expected to have all of the answers, when oftentimes they don’t,” she says.

She says the goal of the research is to help medical schools and hospitals recognize the nature of the stressors that the early career physician population faces and equip them with skills to deal with stress and recognize signs of burnout in themselves.

“I think where we are missing the mark is in medical education—it is a culture issue and we need to reassure our health professionals that it’s okay to need self-care,” Cranley says. “Everybody’s valuable, everybody needs to take care of themselves sometimes. We can’t all be 100 percent all the time.”

Researchers from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga also contributed to the study, which appears in the journal Psychology, Health & Medicine.

Source: University of Florida