Avoid Physician Burnout With a Medical Sabbatical

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6 mins

IN THIS ARTICLE
IN THIS ARTICLE

Doctors often work long, exhausting hours. In order to make up for this, many employers offer sabbaticals, or extended breaks away from work. These breaks are meant to help you rest and recharge so you can provide the best care possible to your patients. Is it time for a medical sabbatical in your career? Read on to understand the importance of taking a break and how to prepare for a longer one.

The Dangers of Physician Burnout

Physicians experience burnout at a much higher rate than those in other professions. Not only are you seeing new patients with new health concerns every day, you are also overseeing the treatment of existing patients, and doing paperwork, managing your staff and maybe even continuing medical education to stay abreast your specialty. That’s a lot!

Over 50% of attending physicians report experiencing burnout in their careers. Rates of burnout rise even higher for certain medical specialties. According to one Medscape study, emergency medicine doctors report a 60% burnout rate, while critical care doctors have a 56% burnout rate. And burnout doesn’t just affect the physicians; it affects their patients as well. Being exhausted, frustrated or distracted can lead to medical errors which could then lead to medical malpractice lawsuits. Yikes.

What is a Medical Sabbatical?

A medical sabbatical is simply a vacation you take from your job. It can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, to an entire year. Generally, the more senior you are, the longer the sabbatical. What you do with your sabbatical is up to you, but the idea is to recharge so that when you do return to work, you can be fully present and alert for your patients.

You may be wondering about financing a sabbatical. After all, if you aren’t working for 3-4 months, the bills might pile up. The good news is some sabbaticals are paid, however some are not. It depends on your employer. You may receive your full salary, but more than likely, you’ll earn a percentage of it. Or, if you take a longer sabbatical, you could get 100% of your pay at the beginning, but the percentage will decrease as the months go on.

How to Ask to Take a Sabbatical

Asking for time off, especially a significant period of time off, can be anxiety-inducing. To prepare yourself to ask your boss for a sabbatical, start by doing your research on your company’s sabbatical policy. You can likely talk to an HR representative in your office or hospital, and they should be able to answer any questions you have. When it comes time to sit down and ask for the sabbatical, go in prepared. Explain why you want to take a medical sabbatical and when you would like to schedule it. Offer your support in helping to find the proper coverage while you’re away. At the end of the day, everyone deserves time off, and your employers should be responsive to that if they’d like you to continue working there.

Steps Before Taking a Medical Sabbatical

Find out if it’s paid

Not every sabbatical will be paid, so make sure you talk with your employer before deciding that a sabbatical is the right move for you. Think beyond salary, too. Even if you’re paid your regular salary, travel expenses or any other activities won’t be covered, so you’ll need to have already saved for those.

Make sure your finances are prepared

If your sabbatical is unpaid, or you won’t be making your full salary, you need a plan in place for your finances. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I pay my basic bills?If it’ll cause you undue financial stress to take a sabbatical, you may want to consider postponing.
  • Can I still afford my student loans?Student loan payments for doctors can be high, so make sure you can afford to consistently make payments, even during a sabbatical.
  • Will I still receive the benefits I need?Luckily, many employers will still offer benefits, even during leaves of absence. If you don’t, however, you may want to consider saving an emergency fund for any unexpected expenses.

Inform your patients

If you work in private practice or see the same patients regularly, take a moment to let them know you’ll be out of the office for a while. That way they can either book an appointment after your sabbatical or find a different physician to see while you’re away.

Find coverage for your patients, if necessary

This mostly applies to private practice doctors. Those with solo practices or limited-member practices will need to find coverage for their time away. Temporary doctors (also known as locum tenens) are on the rise, so this may be the perfect solution. You can search sites like locumtenens.com to find someone available in your area.

Making the Most of Your Sabbatical Year

While you’re on sabbatical, it’s important that you make the most of the time you have off. A sabbatical is designed to help you recharge so you’re less susceptible to burnout. That means you need to take the time to do what’s right for you.

Spend time with your family

95% of primary care physicians say they have a difficult time balancing their work and home lives and wish they could spend more time with their loved ones. Since they work so much, physicians often end up needing to prioritize work over their family and friends. While on sabbatical, make plans to spend more time with your family, it can do wonders for your mental health.

Focus on your health

Burnout can lead to serious health issues if it’s not addressed, so if what you need is time to recuperate, take it. Think about building better habits, seeing a mental health professional if necessary, and kick back and relax for a bit.

Travel

Many doctors have spent years studying and training, so a destination vacation is well-deserved during a sabbatical. If you’ve been putting off traveling to focus on work, make time to see parts of the world you haven’t had a chance to. If you want affordable housing during your travels, sites like SabbaticalHome can help academics and professionals find temporary housing.

Start a hobby

Medicine can be an all-encompassing career that doesn’t leave room for much else. If you’re taking a long sabbatical, finding a hobby or side hustle can be a good way to add some balance to your life.

Improve your medical skills

It may sound counterintuitive to work on your medical skills while taking a sabbatical, but it can go a long way in helping you further your career. Pairing your rest and relaxation time with short classes or workshops to make you a better doctor is how many physicians choose to use their sabbaticals.

Alternatives to a Medical Sabbatical

If your employer doesn’t offer sabbaticals, there are a few other alternatives to take the time off you need.

  • Cut back on hours if you’re overworked:This is easier said than done, but it could go a long way in combating burnout. Part-time doctors are becoming more and more common, so you may even want to consider that as an option.
  • Take medical leave, if needed:If you need an extended time off to care for yourself or a family member, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave. While you may not get paid during this time, your job is still guaranteed when you can return to work.
  • Take your PTO:Most doctors receive paid time off. How much depends on your employer or practice. If you don’t want to take a full sabbatical, using your regular PTO is definitely an option.

Christopher Murray

Christopher Murray received a B.A. in English Literature and Gender Studies from Smith College. He now lives in Maine with his husband where he spends his free time watching reruns of The X-Files and dreaming of traveling in a refurbished VW Bus while writing the next Great American Novel. Chris has extensive writing and editing experience across a range of industries, but with a specialty in personal finance and investing.

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