'Living at Work': Work-Life Balance in a Pandemic

Don S. Dizon, MD


May 10, 2021

When the pandemic hit, I feared that the necessary accommodations that came with it would make me far less productive. I worried that people wouldn't seek care, wouldn't accept telehealth visits, and that the cancellation of in-person events would mean fewer opportunities to lecture. In short, I worried that my work would come to a standstill. Plus, I just wasn't sure that I could focus the same way in an online environment. I thought it would be too easy to be diverted, to spend time watching Netflix or catching up with my kids.

Instead, I seem to be working harder.

I asked my colleagues if they were experiencing the same thing. Apparently, many are. From across the country, many tweeted out in agreement, from folks completing fellowship to others in leadership positions at respected institutions.

People aren't working at home, they're living at work!

"The lines are certainly blurred and taking a toll," said Rachel Louise McCaffrey, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at the University of Michigan.

"Same here. The boundary between work and home has disappeared," wrote Philippe Aftimos MD, the clinical trials development leader at the Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels.

"What's also discouraging is that most if not all of us have also had to deal with pay cuts. We are working longer hours. Seeing more advanced patients. Cancer care never stopped during COVID19," said University of Iowa medical oncologist Pashtoon M. Kasi, MBBS, MS.

But perhaps breast cancer patient and advocate Julia Maués summed it up best: "People aren't working at home, they're living at work!"

Online Into the Night

My in-person clinic hours continue to be busy, but they are now punctuated with telehealth visits. I can schedule outside my regular clinic hours to accommodate more patients, and I do. In fact, I find myself accepting telehealth visits even after I've officially checked out.

On days when I am not seeing patients, I sit in front of a computer screen, attending meetings, conferences, and talks that have moved online. Working from home, my meetings start earlier and I'm scheduling later into the day. I have always started the day with my "list of five" things to do and I still try to get through it, but I now find myself adding numbers 6, 7, and 8.

I break for lunch and dinner but go back into my home office and work well into the night, sometimes turning off my computer after 11 PM.

Still, there are bright spots. Most notably, I no longer spend 2 hours a day traveling to and from the hospital, which means I am more readily available to my family, whether it's a quick trip to the grocery store, dropping off my son at soccer practice, or preparing dinner each and every night. I have bonded more with my twins than my oldest daughter because I am home more often.

I wonder: How long can I keep this up? I can't tell if this is the path toward burnout or simply my new normal. And what happens when normalcy returns — will I be able to go back to the status quo?

I also asked my colleagues for advice on how to move forward. Taking vacation time and daily meditation were mentioned. But the most common recommendation was to block dedicated time on my calendar to protect certain activities, whether personal or professional.

There was one really sage piece of advice that stood out, however.

I saw the wisdom in that and felt compelled to reply.

Don S. Dizon, MD, is an oncologist who specializes in women's cancers. He is the director of women's cancers at Lifespan Cancer Institute and director of medical oncology at Rhode Island Hospital.

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