Work-life balance in medicine with a side gig

Many pre-med students share one goal: acceptance at a top medical school to become a great physician. The myriad challenges of school prepare them for the ultimate responsibility of protecting their patients' health. But what about these new doctors and their own health?

Many physicians try to avoid burnout by striking a balance between their professional and personal lives and other interests that they may have. This focus on work-life balance is sometimes sniffed at by established physicians, labeled as a "new concept" valued only by the younger generation.

"Medicine shouldn't be a part-time interest to be set aside if it becomes inconvenient; it deserves to be a life's work," argued Karen S. Sibert, M.D., in a New York Times Op-Ed in 2011, which was met with widespread debate.

But these attitudes have started to shift greatly in light of the effects of burnout.

Burnout increases the risk of making medical errors and affects approximately 45 percent of physicians in the United States, which is more than any other profession. Burnout has also been linked to major depressive disorder and suicide; the physical exhaustion and stress are often too much to bear.

The old approach to medicine is certainly changing quickly with the development of mentorship programs and a reduction in required work hours. But what else are physicians doing to maintain work-life balance and avoid burnout?

Pursuing a side gig

Many physicians know that they want to be doctors from a young age. But maybe they also liked to paint, play the violin, or write. Yet finding time to incorporate other interests into their life in medicine can be challenging.

For some physicians, hobbies are pursued in their spare time, while for others, starting a side gig based on these interests has helped them to keep their work-life balance by allowing them to fulfill different passions.

Chef in medicine

As a child growing up in Iowa, Michelle Hauser, M.D., knew that she wanted to be a doctor but also loved to cook.

Following culinary school, she interned at a restaurant in Berkeley, a farm-to-table establishment that opened her eyes to the importance of eating fresh, healthful food. She taught cooking classes and was astonished at how her students' health transformed after switching their diets.

"I'm really thankful for the experiences I had taking cooking school and teaching cooking classes because I saw that people really do make healthy changes because they realized that food that is healthy can also be delicious," Dr. Hauser told Medical News Today.

Dr. Hauser later entered Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, with a fresh perspective on nutrition and health.

She was determined to bring what she had learned to her medical career. Her passion for working with under-served communities also led her to pursue additional training in public policy and leadership.

Dr. Hauser is now tackling research in epidemiology with a postdoctoral fellowship in cardiovascular disease prevention at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California. She is also working part-time as a primary care physician and is on the Board of Directors for the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and other organizations.

She spends around 2 to 6 hours per week running a cooking and nutrition website in addition to her other duties.

Dr. Hauser calls her path to medicine an "unlikely journey," but her story is a key example of how physicians can successfully work to balance their passions with their medical practice.

The beat goes on

Not all side gigs come with an apron. Rupa Marya, M.D., has a passion for music and knew that she wanted to pursue both medicine and music from a young age.

Dr. Marya attended the University of California at San Diego for her undergraduate degree and pursued her medical degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., while keeping her musical interests separate from her professional life.

"I went through medical school tortured because I didn't understand how I was going to be able to live my life in a way that I felt I had to," said Dr. Marya.

Near the end of her time at medical school, Dr. Marya's father passed away and she realized that she needed to stop worrying; she just had to push forward and try to make both careers work.

She found solace in a colleague who was a novelist pursuing a flexible track in training so that he had time to work on his writing.

This prompted her to discuss this alternate training path with her program director who fully supported her decision to pursue her side gig in music. And she did just that.

"I found that [a] really healthy, vibrant, and beautiful dynamic would make me more engaged as a clinician. I think it's taught me how to listen more deeply to patients and it also shapes how I am as an artist because [of] the stories and the encounters I have as a physician," Dr. Marya told MNT.

Her music career has been heavily influenced by her medical career. The stories of patients she treats are often echoed in the lyrics and emotional tone of her songs. To her, one cannot exist without the other.

Dr. Marya currently splits her time working as a hospitalist at the University of California, San Francisco, where she works for just over half of the year. The remainder of her time is spent touring with her band, Rupa & The April Fishes.

Advice for physicians pursuing a side gig

For physicians who have been thinking about taking their interests or hobbies to the next level, there are likely a plethora of questions and trepidations about how to get started and what to do next.

Dr. Hauser and Dr. Marya both experienced similar challenges on their way to forging uniques path in medicine, and they offered the following advice.

Prioritize what you want early in your career

Dr. Hauser recommended taking stock and asking "what are all the things I'm doing, what are the most important things to me, what am I willing to do so that I can combine these things... what am I not willing to do, how much am I willing to compromise on things?"

Dr. Marya said, "I noticed some folks that a little later in their careers started thinking about priorities but it might be good to start thinking about it when you're in training and to insist upon it."

Look to your colleagues for guidance

"Meeting other people who were doing this was helpful," Dr. Marya said. "Also just thinking about the priorities that I have that are different than my colleagues and allowing them to be different."

Be your own advocate

Dr. Hauser explained that you "have to be really good at selling yourself and what you do if you want to do [nontraditional] things."

Consider integrating your side gig into your medical career

"A lot of times you don't keep [your other interests] separate, you end up integrating them somehow because you just don't have a lot of extra hours in the day," Dr. Hauser said. "A couple of my friends that are really great musicians have found ways to make money for hospital charities by putting on concerts or coming in and playing for patients."

Put your health and well-being first

"I always get in exercise every day and I eat well every day; I get enough sleep for most of the time," Dr. Hauser explained. "I don't think I could be functioning and doing the things I'm doing if I didn't take care of myself first."

Both Dr. Hauser and Dr. Marya strongly recommended that physicians talk to their colleagues and mentors about their other interests, and that they keep their passion for non-medical interests as they go through their training.

But has following their own non-medical interests helped to them deal with the rigors and demands of medical training and practice?

Indeed it has. Both Dr. Hauser and Dr. Marya felt that their side gigs helped them to stay focused and endure the long hours and stress they experienced as medical students and residents, as well as in their medical duties today.