Two Key Elements to Achieving Work-Life Equilibrium

“If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control – myself.” ~ Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

During our walk the other day, my husband Colin and I were once again discussing one of the well-known drivers of physician burnout and work burnout in general – “work-life balance”. I have thought about it many times, have written about it on more than one occasion, and have both accepted and rejected the term  just as many times. In light of this latter fact, I am trying out the term Colin has decided seems more appropriate – “work-life equilibrium”. Balance refers to ‘the equal distribution’, whereas equilibrium is ‘the balance of opposing forces’. When I conceptualize what is at play, a person’s work-life and home-life, we often consider these competing forces that truly never come into balance. Instead, when in equilibrium, a steady state may be more achievable, even if one force is more dominant than the other.

This past week, the first American Conference on Physician Health was held at Stanford, and although I wasn’t able to attend in person, Twitter afforded me the opportunity to enjoy some of the content from a distance. In the conversation about physician burnout, work-life balance remains a topic of concern. In an attempt to tackle this problem, the organizational causes are being critically examined from a ‘top down’ approach. From my experience, the work part of the equation isn’t always the greatest opposing force, and in fact, some of the life forces challenge the equilibrium. In the end, this whole topic depends on the individual and their given circumstances. Given that, two key elements to achieving work-life equilibrium are self-awareness and self-compassion. The cornerstone being the ‘self’.


Self-awareness is important aspect of emotional intelligence that is considered highly desirable, and fortunately, can be learned. What really is self-awareness? It is the ability to recognize our emotions and emotional responses as they happen. This is the first step to managing our emotions – recognizing them. How this specifically applies to the “work-life equilibrium” can be thought of in numerous ways.

Work – For example, you are a family physician in a group practice and rely on your front staff to book your day. Not infrequently, you find yourself running behind because you are double booked, which creates stress and leads to both frustration and dissatisfaction. You become aware of how this pattern is making you feel, and instead of continuing down this path of overwhelm, you recognize your limitations and speak to the front staff. Although such a schedule may work for other physicians in the group, it doesn’t work for you. By addressing this issue, you have made the first step toward restoring a sense of equilibrium.

Life – Oh so many examples…here is one you may relate to. You want your daughter to be involved in an extra-curricular activity, but you don’t know which one she will like the best. So, being a super parent, you decide to sign her up for both dance and piano, but unfortunately, you soon find yourself frazzled trying to juggle both work and her activities, never mind your other child’s activities and household maintenance. You start to resent your daughter’s schedule and the other parents who don’t appear to be as frazzled. Fortunately, you recognize how you are feeling and realize that this isn’t helping your daughter in enjoying her activities. After discussing your concerns with your daughter, you come to an agreement that choosing one activity at a time is best. If she doesn’t love the chosen activity, then she can move on to the next one.


The biggest take home from the above examples is that you need a huge dose of self-compassion to see your changes in work and in life through. We often expect a lot more from ourselves than we do of others. We are often kinder to others too. We might be hard on ourself for not being able to see “X” number of patients a day, or have your daughter in multiple extra-curricular activities, but what would you say to a friend in the same situation? “Good for you for recognizing your limitations and for making those changes to reduce your stress and manage those emotions.”

Now in my mid forties, I have come to accept and appreciate both my capabilities and limitations. My work-life equilibrium doesn’t, nor should it, look like anyone else’s. And if you think someone else has it ‘all’, remember we all have the same amount of time in a day. Finding how to manage opposing forces in our life, and embrace them as our own, is the key to finding this balance equilibrium we so desire.



10 Tips for a Better Work-Life Balance – The Guardian

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