A recent article in The Washington Post spotlights a pilot program at Stanford Hospital that aims to reduce the rate of physician burnout.
Part of the initiative is what the hospital is calling “time-banking.” In exchange for doing relatively thankless tasks like mentoring students or serving on committees, doctors get rewarded with perks ranging from laundry service to help with grant-writing.
Research cited in The Post found doctors work an average of 10 hours more a week than other professionals and about 40% work 60 hours or more. Nearly half reported at least one symptom of burnout.
According to Jennifer Raymond, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology and an associate dean at Stanford Hospital who helped develop the program, it only formalized a system that was already in place.
Colleagues would frequently try to “bank” favours with each other, for example by picking up each other’s kids from school or covering each other’s shifts at the last minute. The problem was that not everyone felt comfortable asking for colleagues to reciprocate, and sometimes they never did.
Now, doctors can rest assured that when they pick up a last-minute shift or stay late mentoring a student, they will reap the rewards by coming home to a pre-prepared meal or a freshly cleaned house. Other perks include Task Rabbit service, laundry service, access to life coaches, and even help with website development.
The two-year pilot program, which involved four clinical teams and some basic sciences departments, just recently ended, though Stanford’s Department of Emergency Medicine is continuing it. It has changed the hospital’s culture in a number of meaningful ways. For one, Raymond said, when doctors see their colleagues participating in the program, they realise, “I’m not the only one drowning here.”
In other words, it’s no longer a secret that work-life balance is a struggle — and that there are ways to make it more achievable.
The program also makes the hospital’s already-established policies on things like going part-time and taking parental leave extra visible, so that more people are inclined to use them. Before that, Raymond said, “people felt that using those policies that would have given them more flexibility wasn’t consistent with success. So it was kind of not culturally acceptable.”
Yet when I spoke to Alexandra Michel, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education who has researched burnout among investment bankers, she was relatively pessimistic. Investment banking is an example of what Michel calls a “strong environment,” in which work-life balance initiatives aren’t able to override the pressure to be always on.
Michel said that banks have tried to implement different policies like delivering meals to employees who stay late — but it only encouraged those employees to work longer hours because it was more convenient.
Some banks have even sent around memos prohibiting staff from coming into the office and working on weekends. Instead, Michel said, bankers began working in secret so they could keep up with their overachieving coworkers.
Ultimately, Raymond told me that the time-banking program at Stanford “sends a message that the university cares.” And doctors are taking that message to heart.
But at least at this point, it seems like even if banks were to express that sentiment, employees wouldn’t hear it.