How to have a good work-life balance
Medical students share their advice on how to make time for life outside medicine
Medical school may sometimes seem stressful and overwhelming, with numerous deadlines and a vast amount of information to learn. But you can find many ways to channel these worries and make time for life outside your studies. Here, Student BMJ readers discuss how they maintain a good work-life balance.
It’s okay to take time off
Chloe Knox, fourth year medical student, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, UK
One of the most important lessons that I’ve learnt is the importance of being able to prioritise my workload. With such a long and demanding course, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the ever growing “to do” list. You will always have to keep up with some deadlines, but learn when to take a night off and concentrate on yourself. Developing a sense of perspective is vital as a medical student and a future doctor, and being able to assess when you need a break from the books is an essential part of your professional development.
In medicine, there will always be something more to learn, another task to do, another essay to write, more practical skills to perfect; what’s important is learning to distance yourself from the background stress, and not letting it affect your wellbeing.
Sharing your stresses with other medics can also be reassuring, as it’s likely that they will share similar anxieties. Talking things through with a friend who appreciates the nature of your workload may allow you both to re-evaluate your tasks so that you feel more on top of things.
Assess the value of your commitments
Ciaran Grafton-Clarke, third year medical student, University of Liverpool, UK
“Committee position available, looks great on your CV” is a phrase that you will often see in emails sent to you and your peers, but be selective in how you spend your time. I was involved in several societies; however, I never felt that I made much of a difference or developed skills that would aid me going forward in medicine, until I set up my own society. This has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my life.
Remember that it isn’t how many society committees that you have been on, but rather what you have learned from those experiences. So forget about being the treasurer of a society just so you can stick it on your CV, and think about what you can gain from the opportunity and how to make the most of it. This can be getting the experience of organising yourself and others, managing an organisation’s funding, and using your initiative to help a society become a success. It is better to pick one commitment and do it well than to have several commitments that you are not fully engaged with. Choose how you spend your time wisely, and make it count.
Step outside medicine
Emma Davies, fourth year medical student, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, UK
In my third year of medical school I found myself working, living, and socialising with medics, and only in retrospect do I recognise how this medicine bubble made life itself so narrow.
A regular activity outside medicine, personally—yoga, singing in a choir, artwork, seeing friends, and visiting family—enables time for reflection and relieves stress.
By scheduling in regular activities that take me outside medicine, I now approach the hospital setting feeling refreshed and eager to learn. The busy schedule and assignments still exist, but medicine is not the centre of my life. Good time management and organisation, putting time aside every week and committing to the yoga class or choir practice, is likely to make me happier and more productive at work.
Taking time to live life, whether it is rugby, belly dancing, or pottery, will inspire our work and ensure that as doctors we become well rounded individuals. If we don’t strike a good work-life balance, there is a fear of losing the personable skills that enable us to connect well with patients.
Join a sports team
George Cross, final year medical student, Imperial College London, UK
Being the former club captain for Imperial Medicals Rugby Football Club and a current first XV player, I find that rugby takes up a lot of my time. Optimise your organisation by ensuring you keep a diary. I find it easiest to use the one on my smartphone. Making tick box lists ensures that you keep on top of all your assignments, both academic and extracurricular. Having an understanding of what is expected of you during your studies can allow you to make time for other commitments, such as sports.
I believe that providing time for other activities outside medicine is key to creating an efficient work environment. Playing rugby gives me an opportunity to release any stress and provides salient skills that are required for becoming a good healthcare professional, such as teamwork and leadership.
I urge anyone who is worried that they may not have time for their extracurricular activities to jump in with both feet—you will be surprised how you can always make the time.
Choose a working pattern that suits you
Oliver Dray, third year medical student, University of Liverpool, UK
Studying is time consuming and you become less productive after studying for a long time. Some students study during the week and use weekends to relax, but I prefer seven varied days. I compartmentalise my days by planning what I want to achieve. I don’t always complete everything I aim for, but having a plan motivates me to be proactive.
Extracurricular activities should be enjoyable for the sake of it and not solely to boost your CV. My main focus every week is medicine and I like to blend my alternative activities by volunteering, fundraising, playing football for the medic’s team, and working as a university ambassador. I dedicate only small amounts of time to each activity but the variety gives me what I need. These interests keep my mind healthy and active. Regular exercise is equally important as it energises me and maintains my physical wellbeing.
Of course, on occasions I love doing nothing. It is important to leave enough time to completely switch off and relax to prevent any burnout.
A variety of interests will enrich your studies
Diana Newman, fifth year medical student, Imperial College London, UK
As medics we have the privilege of interacting with people of varied backgrounds, values, and life situations. I think breadth of life experience grounds us and enables us to relate better to patients, improving understanding and managing their worries.
I’ve met students with a huge variety of different jobs and hobbies, investing their time and achieving a great deal. Clubs and societies are at the heart of medical school life, offering endless opportunities to make lifelong friends, learn new skills, and have a lot of fun. I’ve loved being part of several arts societies, outreach, and our medical school magazine, and my advice to new students would be to get involved and make time for your family and friends. Aside from it being a good thing to do, I think it will also make us better doctors.Chloe Knox, fourth year medical student
1Brighton and Sussex Medical School
Correspondence to: C.Knox1@uni.bsms.ac.uk
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h6500