Cover Story

When Pamela Hays, PhD, began her psychology career, she tried to do it all: clinical work, writing, research and teaching. But she couldn't sustain it. After a decade of going full tilt, she developed neck problems and carpal tunnel syndrome so severe she had to start using a voice-activated computer system.

"I was driven," she says. "But I drove myself into health problems I couldn't ignore anymore."

Hays, now a clinical psychologist practicing in Soldotna, Alaska, might be an extreme case. Or maybe not. Work-life balance is something that many psychologists struggle with.

The unfortunate irony is that psychologists know better than anyone the importance of making time for self-care. "We talk about it a lot with patients, but we don't practice what we preach," says Chelsi Day, PsyD, a behavioral health provider at Windrose Health Network in Indianapolis.

Psychologists might even have a false sense of invulnerability, says John F. Christensen, PhD, a psychologist in Corbett, Oregon, and past co-chair of the APA Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance (ACCA). "We study burnout and think that applies to the people we're trying to help," he says. "In fact, health is on a continuum, with well-being at one end and burnout at the other. And most of us, during a professional career, slide back and forth on that continuum depending on what's going on in our lives."

Finding balance, however, is easier said than done. "The sin of the early 21st century is being nonproductive," Christensen says. "We're conditioned by our culture to equate value with productivity."

Of course, as psychologists well know, no one is as productive as they can be when they are exhausted and overworked. Burnout is a legitimate phenomenon, marked by feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a diminished sense of accomplishment. "When we move into burnout, we get impatient, we treat others as objects, and we start treating ourselves as task-processing machines," Christensen says. "Our empathy tank has run dry."

For psychologists in clinical practice, neglecting well-being can even impair professional competence, making the matter an ethical concern. As Erica H. Wise, PhD, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and current co-chair of the ACCA, argues in a recent article, it's much harder to stay competent when you're burned out. "Competence … is an essential ethical obligation and provides a critical link between ethics and self-care," Wise and her colleagues conclude (Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 2012).

Practical balance

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all strategy for achieving personal-professional equilibrium. Stressors and obligations are different for everyone, and they also change over the course of an individual's life. "It is important for psychologists to stay attuned to these issues throughout their professional life span, since personal and work-related stressors tend to shift over time," Wise says. "Work-life balance isn't a once-and-done thing."

Some people start by establishing a career with some balance built in. Day, a sport psychologist, recently decided not to pursue an opportunity that she described as a dream job — building a counseling and sport psychology center at a Big 10 school. Although the opportunity thrilled her, after she factored in the long commute, the fact that she'd be on call 24 hours a day and her desire for personal and family time, the job didn't sound quite so dreamy. "Work-life balance is important to me," she says. "I don't want to burn out in 10 years."

After working herself into physical health problems, Hays left academia and moved back to her home state of Alaska to start a clinical practice. She joined a yoga class and a book group, started spending more time with family, and wrote the 2014 book "Creating Well-Being: Four Steps to a Happier, Healthier Life."

But finding balance doesn't necessarily mean you have to change jobs (or move to Alaska). You can start by taking a critical look at your commitments.

Wise recommends doing either formal or informal self-care assessments, which can remind you of your goals and help you figure out which daily activities energize you — and which feel like a slog. "From that, you have critical information that you can factor into your choices about your personal and professional activities," she says.

Jim Davies, PhD, a faculty member at Carleton University in Ottawa, says that for him and many of his colleagues, a lot of work commitments are self-imposed. "They are projects we are passionate about and take on whether we have the time to commit to them or not," he says. "We're too busy because we're overcommitted, not because our jobs are too onerous."

Davies uses a rigid strategy to balance personal and professional time. Every morning, he fills in a detailed spreadsheet with activities for each half hour of his waking day. "Crucially, I also schedule in my breaks," he says — including lunch, coffee breaks and even daily naps. "For me, prioritizing life means putting it in the schedule like all the other important things."

Still, for many people, time management isn't really the problem, says Sandra Lewis, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey and founder of The Living Source, a company that helps clients improve well-being and achieve their goals. "People focus a lot on time management, but I think in terms of personal energy management. If you have enough energy, you make better use of your time," Lewis says. "In the same way we charge our cellphones, we need to charge ourselves."

Yet when we're overextended, even activities that energize us can feel like one more item on an endless to-do list. So Wise suggests taking advantage of smaller moments. You might not have an hour to go to the gym, but you could take a 10-minute lunchtime walk. If you can't fit in a yoga class, take five minutes between appointments to breathe or stretch or meditate. "Find self-care strategies that you can integrate in rather than add on," she says. "Honor the smaller things."

While such strategies are helpful, more needs to be done to change the culture of workplaces from the top down, says Christensen. Too many organizations value busyness and productivity at the expense of their employees' well-being, he says. "Often in this kind of professional workplace, when you're working with other smart, committed people, the way to excel is to overwork."

Christensen has been collaborating with health-care systems in Oregon to measure well-being among clinicians, including physicians and psychologists. He's optimistic that many such organizations are starting to realize that helping employees avoid burnout is not only good for employees, but also for patients and the financial bottom line. That kind of sea change is crucial for making work-life balance more attainable, he says. "The things we as individuals can do will take us only so far."

Meanwhile, Wise argues that instead of focusing only on reducing stress, the field of psychology should do more to promote and maintain well-being broadly. "We need a more positive vision," she says. "As a profession, whether we practice or do research, whether we're being mentors or treating patients, we need to be aware that keeping ourselves healthy is important."

Further reading

  • Hays, P. H. (2014). Creating well-being: Four steps to a happier, healthier life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Walsh, R. (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579–592. DOI: 10.1037/a0021769
  • Wise, E. H., Hersh, M. A., & Gibson, C. M. (2012). Ethics, self-care and well-being for psychologists: Reenvisioning the stress-distress continuum. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(5), 487–494. DOI: 10.1037/a0029446