A few years ago I came across a graph in a magazine and reflect on it almost monthly. It was a graph of Utility on the x-axis and Long-term happiness on the y-axis. This reverberated with me at a time when I was starting to experience some early burnout. Being a physician is a fulfilling career. We make a difference in people’s lives daily. Some specialties, like surgery, the effect is seen immediately. Others, like primary care or psychiatry, it can take months or years to see positive change.
I had a steady salary, excellent health insurance, paid vacation time and compensated for travel to conferences. So why wasn’t I happy?
After reflecting on the initial graph for years, I’ve defined what helps me find satisfaction at work. I’ve created a new graph to label some of the reflections I’ve observed over the years in myself, hospital staff and children. Life is too short to be unhappy at work.
What stood out from this graph is socializing is high on the Long-term happiness axis. My clinical days lacked a social support network, making the work draining. There were plenty of physician role models in this practice, but no one I called a friend or support person. The clinical demands had everyone running between patients, too busy to make small talk. Social events during or outside of clinic hours were almost unheard of. Monthly new faculty support dinners felt forced. There were some words of encouragement but no true connections were made. This practice was a drastic change from residency where my strong support network was comprised of my peers.
Here are some things I did to get by, and later built on these to thrive in my career.
Improve your focus
It seems in recent months there’s been a surge of articles about drinking coffee before taking a nap. Most people I know have mastered the coffee consumption (and your liver thanks you), but it’s not cool to take a nap on the job.
Full disclosure, when I was in the first trimester of my second pregnancy and working 60 hours a week I had a travel pillow in my office and would take a 20 minute nap during lunch and eat later. Rested, I felt that I was providing better patient care, I was more efficient and calmer when clinic didn’t run smoothly. I used the pregnancy as an excuse to nap, but maybe it’s a practice I should continue. I wasn’t drinking coffee regularly then, but now I’m a fan of the coffee nap concept.
Make your space yours
Weather it’s adding softer lighting with a floor and desk lamp or putting a plant or two in your office or pictures of the family, personalize your space. Mr. PW has a small office without windows that he has made his own space with warm lamps, fake plants and pictures of our kids. I advocated for an office with a big window for the space I share with my colleague. My window is lined with plants and pictures given to me by patients and my daughters. When I moved from my closet space to an office with a window my productivity soared. Often my door is open to suggest an inviting space.
Before my colleague and I were fortunate enough to have a window in our office, we shared a small and dark room. We joked about adding a salt lamp and small fountain to our essential oil diffuser. If we stayed in our closet I think we would have invested in creating a spa-like atmosphere to improve our moods and productivity.
Fake it till you Make it
I’ve learned during my training as a physician that anything said with confidence is accepted. This may not be reassuring for those of you who aren’t in medicine, but I’m often not too far off when I use a little forced confidence in my answers or explanations. I’ll look up the question later and contact the patient with correct information if I was way off.
This principle holds true for faking happiness. If I pretend to be in a good mood for patients or my family, my mind usually catches on and the day improves.
Act like a boss, maybe it will help you get there if that’s your goal.
There you have it, my thoughts on how to make work a happy place. What have you done to improve your time at work? What’s holding you back from making changes? What has your professional experience been with social media? How do you use it to improve your professional relationship with your patients or clients?