How hard should you work as a doctor?

I can’t think of too many white collared jobs that rival the intensity and duration of work endured by doctors.  Sure, there are plenty of physically and mentally demanding occupations out there, but what other job involves handling the livelihood of others, triaging life-threatening events, and multi-tasking multitudes of time-sensitive matters?

The work of a lawn maintenance guy.

Take, for instance, the duties of “just” a lawn irrigation serviceman. Let’s say the lawn guy is tasked with installing a drip irrigation system in a lawn.  This is an extremely labor-intensive process.  A general overview is that supply lines have to be placed, individual irrigation lines have to be delivered to the plants, the valves tested, lines buried, and landscaping created to make the lawn aesthetically pleasing.  Even more labor intensive is searching the lines to identify any leaks in the lines after they’ve been buried! Combine this work with the scorching summer heat, and you’ve got yourself one strenuous job.

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Rinse and repeat. Let’s say you and your crew of three guys repair and install new irrigation every day, five to six days a week. Fifty weeks a year.  You’ve got yourself a pretty strenuous and repetitive schedule. Plenty of people do it. It pays the bills, and it is hard work.

Falling asleep in front of your computer is probably okay but not in the operating room during a surgery!

The work of a corporate finance guru. 

The finance industry works hard. I would consider finance bankers, analysts, associates, or whatever title they may have to be the grunt workers of the white-collared world.  Think 80+ hour weeks for projects, presentations galore, and meetings to consume your life.  Many financial analysts I know party hard too. Extreme vacations and sports in the limited downtime they may have.  Some of these guys get smart and save up a financial nut like Sam from Financial Samurai.  Others just spend it on an expensive lifestyle. Many of these people don’t last in their industry.  After they move up the ranks, they either transition out of the industry altogether or just move into a more administrative role.

Sure, I’m biased, but why do people in the this industry eventually leave? The guys that I know who are in their first five years of financial banking tell me they love the challenge, hard work, and helping improve our economy and quality of lives. Huh?

The work of doctors.

Yes, I’m a doctor, but I do think that our line of work is genuinely gratifying.  Take away all of that administrative B.S., healthcare regulations, and management issues of any workplace, and you’ve got a profession that is out there to do some good. Look at the Hippocratic oath. I don’t know of any other profession that makes you swear by such a statement.

You might also like: How to identify physician burnout.

You might also like: Why doctors need a four-day workweek.


I know doctors who spend six days a week working to care for their patients.  Some of them take only two weeks of vacation per year.  Some others work either three to four days a week.  Some others take twelve weeks of vacation.  There is amazing flexibility in medicine—you just have to make a decision to what is most important to you.

Is the the money?

Is it the lifestyle?

Do you want to work 70 hours a week, take only two weeks of vacation per year, and make $1 million a year? Some of us don’t have the luxury of titrating our work-money-lifestyle balance due to the nature of our work, but this is a subject that I’ve been contemplating for a long time.  Given the intensity of our line of work, there has to be a breaking point.

I once had a patient who was in the truck driving industry for thirty five years.  He ended up getting placed on dialysis because his kidneys shut down after going for so many years in an occupation that didn’t necessarily allow for bathroom breaks!

Another one of my patients was a construction worker for twenty years, but ended up getting on disability not because of an injury, but simply because his joints broke down after many years on the job.

At what point will you draw the line on balancing your work, money, and health?

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)

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4 thoughts on “How hard should you work as a doctor?

  1. I was thinking about this very topic on my way to the hospital today! I don’t think that docs enter into the field to work away their life the way they do, rather they enter it to care for folks, but that compassion grows thin when the number of patients seen in an hour increases. I hope in my future practican I can intentionally strike that right balance between too busy and busy enough!

    1. I agree. I have had plenty of classmates who were incredibly intelligent but not necessarily the most diligent in college. When they entered medical school and further training, the profession that they chose essentially forced them to be industrious. It pays the bills, but it’s unclear whether they would’ve chosen another career.

      What specialty are you in?

      1. PGY-1 Ophthalmology! We will have to chat more in the near furture as I know you are an Ophthalmologist as well!

        1. Good luck! Don’t forget about the journey! Once you start making money, you’ll be old! That’s the unfortunate tradeoff in medicine!

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