By sunrise, you, as a trauma surgeon, may have been on your feet for 14 consecutive hours. You’ve seen car crash victims, near-fatal gunshot wounds and a drunk man who fell through a glass-top coffee table.

The trauma surgeon lifestyle means being able to give patients a second chance at life after serious injury. It also means a schedule that is highly unpredictable, demanding and stressful, which can make maintaining a healthy work-life balance difficult.

Could the trauma surgeon schedule and lifestyle be scaring away residents? Perhaps. In the last 7 years, the U.S. has seen a dramatic decrease in the total number of trauma surgeons.

To address this issue, Brown et al. conducted research in order to identify factors that could improve or hurt the trauma surgeon lifestyle. In their paper, presented at the 2020 American Association for the Surgery of Trauma (AAST), Brown et al. surveyed 1,383 AAST trauma surgeons with 291 responding.

Here are key takeaways from their study:

The average trauma surgeon lifestyle at work:

    • 59% of trauma surgeons clock in 61 to 80 hours per week
    • A large majority (94%) take trauma calls
    • 51% say they always have work responsibilities after a call shift
    • On average, they only take 3 of their 4 weeks of vacation

The average trauma surgeon lifestyle at home:

    • They sleep an average of 6 hours per night
    • 85% are married
    • 79% have kids
    • 33% report being very satisfied with their personal life overall

More than half of surveyed trauma surgeons are dissatisfied with their work-life balance.

As part of their survey, Brown et al. included questions about the specialty’s lifestyle such as trauma surgeon work hours, compensation, the most/least enjoyable parts of their jobs, any emotional support at work and professional satisfaction. They also asked about marital status, hours at home, and personal satisfaction.

Researchers found that just 43% of surgeons surveyed were satisfied or very satisfied with their work-life balance while 57% were not satisfied, regardless of age or gender.

Poor work-life balance is associated with almost twice the rate of burnout.

Over 60% of the trauma surgeons surveyed reported burnout, and surgeons with a poor work-life balance had rates of burnout nearly double than those with a good work-life balance, at 77% vs. 39% respectively.

Factors that are associated with poor work-like balance in the trauma surgeon lifestyle.

Researchers also noted that surgeons who were burned out shared a lot of the same factors with those not satisfied with their trauma surgeon lifestyle, including

    • Being midcareer
    • Spending more hours at work
    • Feeling that there is a better job out there
    • Not having hobbies
    • Lack of regular exercise
    • Taking less vacation

Interestingly, the authors noted, taking calls had little impact on trauma surgeons’ satisfaction with their work-life balance.

Personal factors to optimize for a more satisfying trauma surgeon lifestyle.

Brown et al. found that of surgeons satisfied with their work-life balance, 86% have hobbies. The most common hobbies included sports and exercise (35%), outdoor activities (29%), art (15%), music (7%), cooking (6%) and travel (4%).

They also noted that of the surgeons with a satisfying work-life balance, 49% felt that they got enough exercise compared to just 20% of those not satisfied with their work-life balance. Similarly, 74% had a healthy diet vs. 48%. Those who have satisfying work-life balance also reported getting seven or more hours of sleep a night.

Modifiable factors at the institutional level.

Brown et al. hold that surgeons, department chairs and division chiefs should aim to optimize work-life balance within their organizational culture. This could include standardizing trauma surgeons’ work hours to make them sustainable across the profession as a whole, adjusting the duration of in-house call responsibilities to limit sleep disruptions and standardizing time off and weeks per year on service to improve trauma surgeons’ schedules.

This, Brown et al. believe, will not only help to reduce stress among trauma surgeons but preserve the longevity of their workforce.

Work-Life Integration: A New Way to Consider the Balance

Many surgeons are starting to shift towards a desire for work-life integration rather than work-life balance, according to an article by Logghe et al. And surgeons are expressing this desire through social media.

A popular Twitter hashtag used by surgeons is #SurgParenting for tweets of photos and quotes that represent their dual roles as parents and surgeons. Other popular hashtags include #ILookLikeaSurgeon and #SelfCare where surgeons post about the demands of their jobs and the need to reenergize, as well as showcasing their lives outside of the operating room.

Additionally, in a 2017 Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery article by Cheesborough et al., researchers focused on the challenge of achieving work-life integration among female plastic surgeons. To better achieve work-life integration, Cheesborough et al. suggest delegating childcare to a third party when possible, having hospitals help their employees with care responsibilities through extended daycare hours and accommodating work schedules and improving mentorship by having more women in leadership positions and training men on how to be better leaders to women.

The authors also note that some medical institutions are implementing programs to help their employees achieve better work-life integration. Stanford’s emergency medical department, for example, has created a “time banking” program that provides services such as housecleaning, grant writing and elderly care to its employees.

Meanwhile the Mayo Clinic has created the “Listen-Act-Develop” model for its employees in order to help decrease burnout and maximize physician wellness.

(Read next: Why is there a trauma surgeon shortage in the U.S.?)

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