Maintaining Wellness as an EM Resident: How to Balance Work Life with Personal Wellness

Perhaps the steepest learning curve during intern year presented itself as the mission to maintain wellness and find a balance that would allow me to keep showing up - for my patients, my co-residents, and even for myself.

As my first year as an emergency medicine resident progressed, I could not help but reflect. After years of school coupled with countless hours of studying, what was perhaps the biggest long-term investment I will ever make finally paid off. I matched into residency, graduated from medical school, and was finally able to begin a career in emergency medicine.

As with any big transition in life, the learning curve was steep. How to navigate the EMR, how to put in orders, how to be a doctor rather than the medical student who admittedly had less responsibility and accountability. Perhaps the steepest learning curve, though, presented itself as the mission to maintain wellness.

To be blunt, this is a task I am constantly working to improve but know I will never perfect. As a physician, I know it is inevitable that at various points in my career, I will sacrifice my wants and needs for the benefit of a patient. However, the necessity of balancing a life in medicine with wellness outside of it cannot be ignored. As a result, I have worked hard to identify tips that can help me - and, with hope, you - maintain wellness as an emergency medicine resident.

Remember who you are.

These words may be borrowed straight from The Lion King, but the wisdom they bestow is unparalleled. Remember who you were before medicine occupied all your time. What were your other passions? What were the things you did for fun, or simply to relax? Make a physical list of as many as you can. My recommendation would be about 20 so as to prevent cheating by filling it up with things like “eating” and “sleeping”. Be specific, and then be proactive about incorporating these activities into your life again. You may not have as much free time as you once did, but even 5 minutes upon waking up or before going to bed can make a world of difference.

Express gratitude.

The research on how gratitude can enable people to lead happier, more fulfilled lives is difficult to ignore. What I have found anecdotally is that as people go through life, they spend so much time focusing on the destination that they overlook the journey. Medical school is no exception to this ideology, but realize that for so much of your life residency was the destination. Now that you are here, stop and smell the roses. Whether it is through a gratitude journal or one minute of reflection, take time to express the things you are grateful for. Not every day will be extraordinary, but there is always gratitude to be found. A correct diagnosis, a compliment from a colleague, even an exceptional cup of coffee. Finding bits of happiness in your life will only lead you to discover even more.

Talk about your failures.

On the other side of the coin, expressing failure is just as critical as expressing gratitude. Disarm the part of your brain that for so many years has been reluctant to communicate reluctance and mistakes. You are in a highly competitive profession and specialty. You are not going to be perfect, and everyone who has or is completing an emergency medicine residency has felt the same trepidation or imposter syndrome that you believe is exclusive to you. Your problems are not unique. This is a matter-of-fact statement that can lead to incredible growth.

One thing my residency preaches is having a “failure buddy”. Someone in your specialty, if not your residency itself, who you can talk to about the things that make you uncertain, uncomfortable, or just downright scared. At the bare minimum, it helps you get these important issues off your chest. More than likely though, your failure buddy will express the same concerns, and suddenly all the thoughts that have been weighing you down seem a little lighter. 

Keep spontaneity alive.

As wonderful as the shift work of emergency medicine is, monotony can still set in if you let it. Wake up, go to work, eat or drink something if you remember to, exercise if you are feeling extra ambitious, and sleep. Sometimes we unknowingly go into autopilot. The world quietly keeps spinning and before we know it, we are feeling the effects of burnout. One way to combat this and break the cycle is to be spontaneous. Get off your shift on time? Go to that restaurant you have heard amazing reviews about but convinced yourself you would not have the time to stop by. Somehow ended up with a whole weekend off? Take a little vacation, explore a nearby city, or even do a staycation and pamper yourself. Oftentimes it is the moments when you feel like this is not necessary or feasible that you end up needing it the most. A dash of spontaneity every now and then can help you discover new things and remind you that you are a person first and a resident second.

Dare to compare.

Not to other people, but to yourself. Remember when you were a medical student, slaving away studying for board exams or too timid to speak up in the hospital? Look at how far you have come. You are taking care of patients with a great deal of autonomy and changing lives even though you may not directly see the effects of your hard work.

On days where the hours seem to stretch longer and the patients are even sicker, remember all the reasons that made you chase a career in emergency medicine in the first place. Recall all the struggles that at one time seemed insurmountable. Yet here you are, climbing mountains and conquering your dreams.


You did that, doctor. Now take all the necessary steps to ensure your own wellness so that you can continue to excel in our incredible specialty for years to come.

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