THE elusive work-life balance is harder for doctors to attain if their spouse or partner is also a doctor rather than working in another occupation or staying at home.

This is the finding of a United States survey, reported in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, in which surgeons were asked about burnout, work/home conflict and career satisfaction. (1)

Of the 7905 responding surgeons, 6815 (86%) were men and 7120 (90%) were married or partnered.

Almost half of the partners did not work outside the home, 16.4% were doctors and 34.9% were working non-doctors.

The survey found surgeons whose domestic partner was a doctor were more likely to delay having children and to believe childrearing had slowed their career advancement.

They were less likely to believe that they had enough time for their personal and family life.

The results also showed surgeons partnered to another doctor were more likely to have depressive symptoms and low mental quality of life than those whose domestic partner stayed at home.

Surgeons whose domestic partner was a doctor were younger and newer to practice, which could partly be explained by the growing proportion of women surgeons who were more likely to be married or partnered to fellow physicians than their male colleagues, the authors said.

Career conflicts were common among surgeons married or partnered to a doctor and work‒home conflicts were also more common.

“When a career conflict occurs, surgeons married or partnered to physicians more often subjugated their career for the good of their (domestic partner’s) career,” the authors said.

Surgeons whose domestic partner was another surgeon faced even greater challenges in these areas while surgeons whose partner stayed at home appear to be more satisfied with their career.

The authors said institutional strategies to help the lives of dual-career couples could include coordinated schedules, daycare in the workplace and adjusted timelines for promotion and tenure.

“At a personal level, married or partnered physicians should seek mentorship for career counselling to proactively deal with inevitable stressors of intense dual-career families and career conflict,” they said.

Royal Australasian College of Surgeons executive director of surgical affairs Dr John Quinn said it was probably more difficult for women than men in a dual-doctor relationship.

“But women, particularly women who go into surgery, go into it with their eyes wide open and they are the most organised and talented people at organising their time that I have ever seen,” he said.

“They go into it knowing there are going to be difficulties, particularly with having children [and] running families.

The College encouraged and facilitated part-time and interrupted training for men and women and also liaised closely with its trainees’ association.

Western Australian general surgeon and university academic Professor Jeff Hamdorf, who is married to GP Dr Katherine Walker, said organisation was the key to achieving a work-life balance.

Professor Hamdorf, who is also director of CTEC (Clinical Training and Education Centre) at the University of Western Australia, has four boys under 10 years of age and a 27-year-old daughter living away from home.

“[We] decided really early on in our relationship that if we were planning on being good parents we could only have one of us as a specialist and I had just completed my specialty training.”

Professor Hamdorf has a rule to go out only one night during the week so both parents could be at home with the children in the evening. They also had two part-time nannies.

He said mentorship through the professional colleges, professional development advice, counselling, and workplace childcare in universities and hospitals were good ideas to help married doctors.

1. J Am Coll Surg 2010; 211:663–671

Posted 13 December 2010

2 thoughts on “Work-life balance harder with doctor spouse

  1. Anonymous says:

    it would be interesting to see the satisfaction levels of the partner stuck at home.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Having previously been married to a busy surgeon, I (a GP) could identify with everything in this article.
    The situation is a double-edged sword – it is good to have a medical partner who intimately understands your life and the issues, but the downside is that you can never “get away” from work when your partner is another doctor – especially if you are working in the same town as we were.
    This can lead to problems when one or other partner suffers “burnout”. I think this was a major cause of our marriage break up. Medical couples need to be mindful of and prepared for these eventualities.

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