Tips from colleagues for physicians who have to work over the holidays

November 14, 2019

Dr. Catherine Brown likes to find time over the holidays to cross-country ski with her family and do holiday baking. Since she has become a physician, that has not always been possible.

Illness and injury do not take time off, and that means many doctors have to work during the holidays each December. For Dr. Brown, who is a family medicine doctor, also in her fourth year of training in public health and preventive medicine at the University of Ottawa, the hardest part of having to do that is losing quality time with her family. “It’s tough at times to be missing out on those moments, but we fully appreciate that the care we provide is critical to patients and the functioning of the healthcare system over the holidays,” she said.

Tip 1: Get organized with respect to calls

Julie Petrera reminds us that it’s not only the physician who is affected by holiday work shifts. She is the National Lead, Financial Planning Content at MD Financial Management and her husband is a resident in orthopaedic surgery.

Petrera says she has yet to spend a New Year’s Eve with her husband since he started residency in Ottawa. “It can be hard on the families,” she said, “but I understand that somebody has to be there.”

She stressed the importance of being organized with respect to calls. There are deadlines to request time off and deadlines to submit for call stipends after completing them to ensure you get paid. Having a system to track these is key.

Tip 2: Turn to colleagues and family for support

Dr. Clover Hemans is a family physician based in Oakville, Ontario, and President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada. She has had to work most holidays over the years, including Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Labour Day and even on her daughter’s birthday.

“There’s often guilt associated with not being around,” she said. “The key is to have honest conversations and to substitute the moment with an alternative date, perhaps, or an alternative time type of activity.”

Major holidays like Christmas had often been hosted at her house, and that required advanced planning, she said. Her husband also played an important role in the holiday preparations.

Another source of practical support for Dr. Hemans is her colleagues. They coordinate to permit one another the time off that matters most, be it Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s. For her part, Dr. Hemans frequently works Christmas Eve, Boxing Day or New Year’s to have Christmas Day off with her family. “So although negotiating the call schedule can be a source of stress, working collegially with your colleagues can also be a source of strength and really make a difference in surviving call, enjoying the holidays and finding gratitude,” she said.

But the best thing she can do when scheduled to work, Dr. Hemans has found, is simply to be kind to herself. “You cannot do it all — you should not feel you need to do it all,” she said. “Choose your partner well. Let them help you. Talk to your family, especially your children. Let them be a part of making a special alternative experience if they’re capable. It does all work out in the end.”

She has learned to stop worrying about whether she’s somehow failing as a mother or wife. “Your family just cares that you love them,” she said. “Learn to show that in multiple ways and with good hugs and conversation.”

Tip 3: Treat yourself

Like Dr. Hemans, Dr. Brown has found it helpful to be organized and get her holiday prep done in advance. “I’m a planner by nature, so I like to get as much crossed off my to-do list as possible before the holidays,” she said. “It means that instead of doing last-minute shopping in the days I do have off, I can spend them with loved ones.”

She, too, leans on family and friends for support. Sometimes when she has to miss a special family meal while on call, they’ll drop off a tasty care package for her at work.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that it can be difficult to be away from family during the holidays, and at times it can feel lonely to see friends out having fun while you are stuck at work,” she said. “To overcome this, I made a point to see friends and family after my shift or post-call. It made for some long days, but I was often rejuvenated by their energy.”

And when those mandated five consecutive days off do finally come along, she recommends treating yourself. For her, that has meant a spa day and some pampering with friends.

Tip 4: Know that your care is important at this time

Sermo, a social platform for physicians, surveyed doctors around the world about their experiences of working during holidays. Many responses were positive. “Working holidays engenders camaraderie,” wrote one. Others described it as “strangely rewarding” and “noble.”

According to Dr. John Henning Schumann, an American physician, the people you treat over the holidays might become some of the patients you remember most. Nobody wants to be in the hospital at this time of year, so there’s a good chance that those who are there will be in real need of help. They and their families will be grateful to you for being there for them.

Dr. Brown echoed that sentiment. “Patients are grateful you are working and are generally more forgiving when things might take a bit longer than usual,” she said.

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