Adventures in full-time work
I’ve been doing a part-time job share for almost 4 years now and have quite a few observations about work. If you are new to the blog, I’m a physician; a radiologist to be exact. My backstory is here if you are so inclined and have had enough coffee. In short, I burned out from my job a few years out of training and eventually stumbled into a part-time job share opportunity. I love the flexibility of this work arrangement and the space it opens up in my life. Life was good.
Nobody working part-time is really excited about having to go back to full-time. When my job-share partner announced her impending maternity leave last year it took me a few moments to process. I was both happy (for her and her husband) and a little anxious (for me).
I did this a couple years ago, returning to full-time work for a 3 month maternity leave. It was absolutely terrible, as it coincided with some medical problems (now resolved) that made it much worse than it had to be. That is a story for another day perhaps.
In fact, my last experience with going back to full-time was worse than full-time work when I was in maximum burn out mode. I kind of blocked that episode out of my mind in a way so I haven’t written about it. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think I may still have post-traumatic stress disorder from that stretch. I’m not even sure my memory would recall the event with accuracy.
But now I am a semi-professional blogger*, and I feel it is my duty to journal my experiences and report back to you, my loyal readers. So as the date drew near, I broke out a fresh notebook and sharpened my pencils.
First of all let me get this out there; I am a big fan of extended maternity leave. I think it is better for mom, baby, family and society at large to give a mother and her baby that time together. It’s just not natural for a mom to go back to work a few weeks after giving birth. Unfortunately many women feel like they have to go back to work before they are ready, both physically and psychologically. The fact that I am working part-time meant that my group was able to grant 3 full maternity leaves in the last 4 years with minimal disruption (well, to anyone but me that is). I feel great about this. This is one of the benefits of part-time work.
What I did not feel great about was the first 5 (should have been 4 but my partner delivered a week early) weeks of this transition. I was looking at four five weeks straight front loaded with two weeks of back-to-back call. I would have one period where I would be working 23 of 26 days. This is a bit rough even for someone used to working full-time. I’ve had a couple stretches like this in the past and they are just terrible.
The Complaining Philosopher
Now I know some of you probably work many more hours than me and have more demanding jobs. This is not a contest to see who works harder or has a crappier life. Remember it’s all a single player game. The suffering that happens between my ears is unique to me, just as your suffering is unique to you. Take what I say with a grain of salt and realize it is my unique experience. My purpose here is both to entertain you and inspire you to think more deeply about your relationship with your job, and, if appropriate, make changes in your life that increase your happiness.
The fact is I’m used to working a couple days a week, and this was a big change for me. Some Wednesdays I wake up and do nothing but write, play guitar and destroy people online playing video games. Often I’m not even wearing pants (I know, TMI). Let’s face it; I’m a wimp (but happy AF).
How would I adjust to drinking out of the fire hose of radiology again?
Week 1 – 50 hours
I received a text that the baby was inevitable and I would be heading back to work a few days earlier than I had planned. It was a week earlier than I expected, but that’s just how babies work. Sometimes they are anxious to get into the world. I purposefully went into my first day with a great attitude, assuming that everything would be awesome. I told everyone who asked that I was looking forward to diving in again and embraced the challenge. My face hurt a little from smiling all the time. Maybe I could overwhelm reality with gratitude. After all, this is the kind of crap I write about every week on my blog…
I kept this facade up until roughly Thursday, which is when I broke a little. This day was absolutely exhausting. It was an 11 hour marathon and I was spent afterwards. There was no break. The day was relentless. I felt like I brought a knife to a gun fight. Friday was pretty brutal as well and after I got home I reflected upon the damage.
One week in and I was exhausted. I already noticed less time spent with my family and felt disconnected. My kids wanted more of my attention, but I didn’t have a whole lot of energy to give by the end of the week. I had a party to go to Friday night and to be honest it depleted what little energy I had left. I’m an introvert, so parties drain me anyway, but having one after a hard 50 hours of work was about all my brain could handle. I didn’t lift weights, run or do yoga once all week. There was less time to eat healthy, think, write and do the day to day minutia. I had to cancel an appointment due to work.
After that first week I started to question why ANYONE would want to work full-time unless they absolutely loved their job – even IF they loved their job. It’s like The Matrix, people accept the reality they are given. I’m not like that anymore; I just don’t accept that program. Now that I’ve seen both worlds I can’t be fully happy plugged back in. I know the freedom that exists when I’m unplugged.
11 weeks to go…shit.
Week 2 – 57 hours
The hours someone works are ultimately a factor in the quality of their life, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all hours worked feel the same to everyone. Some of you probably work 57 hour weeks all the time and are just fine, but 57 hours of intense radiology in a week is about all I can handle. The extra hours were due to weekend call. This week brought into focus the fact that there is very little down time in my job. I use my short lunch not so much to eat (although I’m usually starving), but to take a few moments to turn my brain off and not think about radiology for a while. I think of it as rebooting the computer when it just doesn’t seem to be at peak performance.
By Tuesday night I was pretty worn out, but surprisingly calm. I’ve been doing some yoga this week with my daughter which has been great. One not great thing I’ve noticed though is I am now forced to live my life “on-peak”, which means I have to do stuff when everyone else is doing it. All of my shopping and errands are in the evenings and weekends…when every other wage slave is forced to do these menial and joyless tasks. I forgot how annoying this is. Stores and roads are all more crowded and I have to wait for things. I absolutely hate it.
Actually this is half true. I don’t hate standing in line and waiting. I’ve become as calm as a Hindu cow thanks to mindfulness, meditation and gratitude, but this is when there is space in my life. Now that I’m full-time again, and on call this week, there is no space. My time is suddenly rare and standing in line reminds me of this fact. Standing in line instead of playing basketball with my kids or playing guitar is just making me a little annoyed.
Tonight it’s 6:00 and I’m standing in line at Safeway with a head of cabbage in my hand. Apparently the recently purchased cabbage in our fridge was moldy, and this was the primary ingredient for tonight’s dinner. A frantic text from my wife requested I stop by the store on my way home. I cursed the microbes that conspired to ruin my dinner as I drove around the parking lot looking for a parking spot. Eventually I enter the store and find the cabbage, organic and free-range of course. Everyone in line around me looks just as pissed off as me. Maybe I’m just projecting my emotions because the last 20 lines I was standing in didn’t look like this. I don’t even like cabbage.**
I got home around 6:30 and had a revelation. I hate getting home at 6:30! Maybe this is your baseline state, and if it is I feel for you. My question is why do we accept this as normal? We should get home at 2:00 and spend our afternoons playing beach volleyball and mountain biking.
I think this week inspired this Tweet to ferment in my brain:
Working 8 hours a day for 45 years is not a rational way to live, yet we all adjust our spending to build this prison.
— TheHappyPhilosopher (@HapyPhilosopher) May 20, 2017
Pretty pithy right?
Maybe not, but it’s true.
Pre-modern humans didn’t work 50 hours a week. They worked a few hours a day. Kill some big animal, forage for a few berries and then spend the rest of the day sitting around, having sex, pillaging the village next door; you know – fun stuff. But at some point in the past some do-gooder decided it was a great idea to have everyone working 8-12 hours a day, preferably with a long, nasty, dangerous commute thrown in there. I guess there was less pillaging of villages this way as everyone was too worn out afterwards to do anything but watch TV, drink beer and drive kids to soccer practice (not necessarily in that order).
Why do we accept this as normal? I’m sure school and society help condition us, but this is a crazy way to live. The problem is it seems rational when you look around because everyone else is doing it.
It reminds me of this crazy study where they drew lines on a piece of paper and asked people if they were the same or different lengths, and not surprisingly everyone got the right answer because it is the easiest question in the world. But when they put people in a room with confederates (actors) who all intentionally got the wrong answer only 63% chose the right line.
You heard that right. 37% of our brains completely malfunctioned on the simplest, most strait forward observation because everyone around us was messing with us. How do you think we do with complex problems with hundreds of variables and subtle nuance?
By the way, if you are ever feeling rational just start reading random psychological studies dealing with cognitive bias. Your brain is completely messed up (as well as mine and everyone around you).
My Wednesday schedule looks horrible. Oh well, at least I’m getting decent sleep. I’ve made it my goal to help my daughter learn old Beastie Boys flute rifts so she can be the coolest and/or dorkiest kid in her school. And no, she doesn’t really know how to play flute, but we are going to learn these rifts before moving on to scales – which are boring.
It’s Wednesday and in spite of trying to cheer myself up with Beastie Boys videos I’m cranky by the end of my workday. Nine and a half hours a day of stressful, intense work is taking its toll on me. I feel like I need a few days off, but I’ve got three more hard days ahead of me. I’m too tired to try and come up with something clever or insightful right now.
Over The Hump
Thursday and Friday were actually better days. I got out of work about an hour earlier than the last few days. My nervous system is jacked up though. I’m anxious and my heart races a bit. I sort of feel like my cat when he runs around the house; looking around at stuff that none of the rest of us can see. We always laugh at him and suddenly I feel a little bad about that. WTF is wrong with me? I’m feeling bad about laughing at my cat? I may need an SSRI.
Saturday was one of the busiest call days in a long time. I’m exhausted when I walk out of the hospital and am so thankful no one can touch me until Monday. On my way out I run into one of the physician assistants I know. Apparently I did a biopsy on her patient and she made a point to tell her how kind I was during the biopsy. As a radiologist I almost never see patients again or get feedback like this as everyone is just too busy or forgets.
Sometimes we take for granted what we do and forget how scared people are that are going through the medical system. I really appreciated the gratitude of this patient, and the fact that she made it a point to mention it in her appointment. And I’m really happy I could make her feel comfortable during a procedure that may be routine for me (I’ve probably done thousands) but unique and terrifying for her. This little exchange made my day.
I have one day off before next week starts. I haven’t appreciated a day off like this in a while, I forgot how this feels. When things are rare our appreciation is often brought into focus. I noticed I really relish the days off more during full time, but it is different. I crave them in the same way an alcoholic craves a drink, not the way I crave a beautiful day or a sunrise. Although my appreciation was more intense for a day off when working more, it was not as deep. It was sugar; empty calories instead of nourishment. An odd realization as I drift off to sleep preparing for another week.
Week 3 – 43 hours
Days are starting to blend together and I’m not mindful or Zen anymore. I’ve lost about 3-4 lbs either from chronic dehydration or the fact I’m not eating well. Stress decreases my appetite. Some may find this appealing, but with an abnormally low BMI to begin with I can’t really afford to lose weight. I feel crappy when my weight drops too low. It’s like I’m an anorexic without the anorexia if that makes any sense.
I made a careless mistake this week. Thankfully it was of no clinical consequence, merely something that made me look like an idiot. I’m feeling the daily grind and accepting my fate simultaneously. Wife and kids are doing fun stuff this week like riding bikes and going to waterparks. (It’s spring break.) Life is too short to waste it working…
It’s Thursday again. I was supposed to be on call this weekend but I sold it to one of my partners. I just need the weekend off. This was an expensive choice but I enjoyed every second of the relaxation. I also realized today that I’m a total asshole when I’m working a lot and stressed out.
A woman came to my door to sell some overpriced crap I didn’t need. Although I was marginally polite at first I was in no mood to listen to a pitch. She persisted. I went into alpha physician domination mode (the kind that makes residents and medical students IQ drop 70 points and become unable to talk in coherent sentences) and made her leave my porch. She may have been crying as she left but I’m not certain. I hated myself a little for that one, but I just couldn’t deal with it. I had a minor family crisis to attend to.
You get the idea.
Week 4 – 42.5 hours
The workload hasn’t been bad these last couple of weeks. I am in a rhythm working full-time. I don’t love it but it is not terrible without weekend and night call. For some reason, these last two weeks have been a bit less busy. Radiology is like this – unpredictable.
I savor my time off though and want more of it. I’m more efficient. I have to be. When working 40+ hours a week you have to start prioritizing. You have to figure out what your values are and make them priorities. I value things like:
- Having dinner every night with my family.
- Spending time with my kids. My daughter and I started doing yoga together which is quite awesome.
- Going on walks.
I’m becoming more aware now that everyone I know worships at the altar of productivity. Everyone is trying to figure out how to do more, be more productive, generate more RVU’s (relative value units – the currency of the medical industrial complex). Those that are not a part of this cult are generally shunned. There is a certain implied shame in being less productive or slower than average, even though it is statistically impossible for us to all be above average (as physicians we all think we are). Reach upwards or die trying. Productivity, doing and having more, doesn’t equal happiness though.
I watched this film about minimalism and it could not have been at a better time.
My fitness has suffered. Although I value it intellectually, I am beginning to wonder if I really value it because it was one of the first things to suffer when my time was sequestered by the additional work. I’ve stopped running. I’ve stopped with the weight work. I’m too tired. It’s only yoga now. Only one more week left until I have some time off. I don’t know how or why I did this for 8 years. I cannot fathom doing this for 30.
Week 5 through 12…
Blah, blah, blah, blah
My journal gets pretty sparse here but it’s the same crap as before. Let me sum things up for you: Full time work as a physician sucks, at least for me. This model may have been psychologically healthy back when being a doctor was awesome, but, simply put, it is no longer awesome. All Most of the awesomeness has been replaced by more regulation, documentation, tedium, liability, administration, bureaucracy, etc. Grinding through work at top speed is not fun at all, and 40 plus hours of not fun stuff every week is a horrible way to live life.
We accept this state of being where we give 5 (or more) days of ourselves to our job and get a couple days of weekend as compensation. Next, we numb our minds with television and alcohol and then grab some overpriced corporate free-trade legalized stimulant on our way to work Monday to start it all over again. We know something is wrong deep down inside, but we suppress it, refuse to believe it. The cognitive dissonance between what really makes us happy and what we are told should make us happy is too painful to accept.
Three plus years of part-time has spoiled me shown me the truth. I am fully unplugged from the Matrix. There is no going back. I’m winding this experiment down and will start another journal as I transition back to part time.
Of note, sometime between week 5 and week 8 I totally jacked up my lower back. This definitely made everything worse. I would rather work full time until 65 and be free of pain or chronic medical condition than retire tomorrow in pain. I’m aggressively trying to fix it through a combination of physical therapy like stuff, strength work and angrily shaking my fist in the air and yelling Kaaaaahhhhhhnnnnnn!
Ok, I made that last one up, but I am re-watching all of Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family. For some reason I keep imagining Donald Trump as Captain Piccard and thinking about how differently the episodes would have turned out. I’m wondering if Deanna Troi would have snapped and stabbed him in the throat with some Betazoid ceremonial dagger. I have a total crush on her. How deranged is that? I need sleep.
Live long and prosper.
*I’m not sure when an amateur becomes a semi-professional or even professional blogger for that matter. I’ve been doing it over a year so I’m giving myself an upgrade so my ego doesn’t quit on me.
**Actually I do like cabbage when properly prepared, but somehow the story seemed funnier if I didn’t like it. Please forgive me for this little white lie and thank you for the suspension of disbelief.
Please share your experiences with part-time work in the comments below.