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Achieving a Work-Life Balance as an Occupational Therapist

by Devin Diedrich

A morning in the life


Alarm goes off, you shuffle your way to the shower, completing your ADLs with your eyes closed, mind elsewhere: Did Dr. Smith email me back? I need that updated protocol before I see Tim. I wonder if DME put in that order for Suzy. I think she’s on my schedule today, and she really needs that brace … Oh, shoot! I was supposed to create the itinerary for the next clinic meeting last night, I totally forgot! Ugh. Maybe I can bust it out during lunch. Yeah, I’ll write it over lunch. DANG! I still need to email back that wedding photographer, she may not hold our date if I don’t get that deposit to her. Well, I get paid Friday, so maybe another two days will be okay and I can pay her then?


You head to the kitchen, finally looking presentable enough for your long day ahead, and your phone buzzes. It’s a text from your best friend: “Hey! A few of us are getting together for happy hour tonight around 7 … please come!! I feel like it’s been FOREVER!” Your mind wanders again. Well, technically I’m done at 7 tonight, but that’s assuming I stay caught up on notes all day. That’s unlikely. But I’ve also said no the last three times they’ve invited me out. I should probably say yes, but, ugh, I’m so tired. I don’t want to socialize after work. I want to go to bed. I have so many things at home I need to do. You leave the message in your inbox, with no reply, for now.


Feeling a tiny bit rejuvenated after your first cup of coffee (of many, tbh), you pack your lunch. As a lovely morning surprise, you realize you forgot to wash your Tupperware the night before, and boy is there nothing like the smell of day-old chicken and veggies permeating that olfactory system bright and early! *sigh* You scrub.


You make your way to your commute. Maybe you’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, some 70-year-old man just flipped you off, and you have no idea why he’s even mad. Perhaps you’re sitting on a packed subway train, watching a person ferociously lick their fingers after eating a donut, only to put that same hand onto one of the communal poles … You slowly reach for the travel-size hand sanitizer in your purse, discreetly of course.


You made it to work, congrats! As a prize, you have been gifted three sticky notes on your computer detailing people you need to call or email, as well as a note about an eval that HAS to be seen, so you’re now double-booked at 10am, and one of your treatments slid down into your lunch hour. So much for writing that meeting itinerary at lunch. Oh, and don’t forget to text your BFF back! Happy Wednesday!!!!!

Sound familiar? Life as a new grad has many challenges, and finding a good work-life balance can often feel like a juggling act (and if you’re like me, juggling is NOT a strength). The good news is that we are in this together! And we can explore some tips for how to manage your work-life balance so you can operate at your best for your patients, enjoy your personal life, and prevent burnout.

1. Prioritize

Hospital and clinic settings tend to have long days, anywhere from four to ten hours long (and leaning toward ten). As we know, if you’re seeing patients for 10 hours a day, you have tons of documentation to do, and those ten hour days can quickly turn to twelve, thirteen, or even fourteen hour days. This is where prioritizing is crucial. You KNOW you’re going to be tired. You don’t have a bunch of extra hours at the end of your day, so only plan the absolute “musts” during these long days.

Maybe you’re in a school setting where your work days are (supposedly) shorter, but you spend hours and hours at home treatment planning, writing progress notes, and IEP reports. Again, figure out a way to structure your day that sets you up for success. For example, you leave school at 2pm, grab a yoga class or meet a friend at the park to give your brain a break, then you head home feeling recharged for an evening of work.

Is heading out for drinks after a long day not how you recharge? Check out some tips from a fellow healthcare professional on being an introvert in the industry!

2. Ask for Help

If you’re feeling overworked, bogged down, or unsupported, it may be beneficial to reach out to your supervisor. Any good boss will want what’s best for their employees, and if you’re really struggling, they can offer guidance and brainstorm with you to figure out how they can support you. This could include things like weekly check-ins to see if you’re understanding Medicare billing, protocols, coding changes, etc.

Maybe you decide that five to eight hour days work better for your needs, rather than working four to ten hour days like the other therapists. Remember, if you don’t communicate your needs with someone, they can’t fully understand what’s going on. They can’t read minds, so don’t assume they know you’re struggling if you haven’t been honest with them.

3. Be Realistic

I know sometimes we may feel like we have superpowers, but at the end of the day, we are human (hate to break it to ya)! Be realistic with yourself and your expectations. You’re probably not going to get your dream job right out of school. You’re probably not going to be able to work for twelve plus hours, make happy hour with your friends, run to the farmer’s market for fresh produce, and also grab a barre class all on a Monday. If you overbook yourself, you’re setting yourself up for disaster and likely disappointment. This is also where we can tie in our first point and learn to prioritize day by day. If you have to sacrifice your gym time today, prioritize it for tomorrow.

4. Be Gentle with Yourself

Stop being so hard on yourself! I promise you’re doing just fine. It seems as though many of us are type-A, perfectionist type humans (I mean, it’s hard work getting into and through OT school), but you need to chill out. Seriously, it’s for your own well-being. You don’t have to be the perfect OT (there’s no such thing), an always-readily-available-friend for coffee, drinks, or dinner, and hit the gym six days per week while eating your kale and greens smoothie. Stop and think about what you would do if you had a patient tell you they had expectations like that of themselves. What would you tell them? Sometimes we need to “OT “ ourselves and look at ourselves holistically.

5. Say “No”

There’s a time and place where being a yes-man (or woman) is a great thing, but when it comes to your sanity and work-life balance, you may want to think twice. Your BFF texted you this AM and wants you to join them for happy hour tonight. Will saying “yes” to this leave you feeling more fulfilled or more stressed out when it’s all said and done? If the answer is the latter, it’s a good time to say no. “But Devin, if I always say no to my friends, they’ll stop wanting to be my friend.” Fair! And I agree. Two tricks I’ve found to be useful in these situations include: being honest and suggesting another date or time.

“Will saying “yes” to this leave you feeling more fulfilled or more stressed out when it’s all said and done?”

For example, “Hi! Thank you so much for the invite, it sounds so fun! I wish I could join, but I’m slammed right now at work, and I know I’ll be a stress-mess and no fun if I join you tonight. But I had a patient tell me about a new brunch spot on 1st Ave that sounds AMAZING! Could we grab brunch on Saturday when I’m more rested and feeling better? I’m in need of some bestie-time!”

This way you can thank them for thinking of you, you’re honest with your own feelings of uncertainty, and you offer a solution and alternative, showing you care about them and the relationship.. A true friend would never want to add to your stress or dismay, so be honest and transparent with them so you can work together to figure something else out.

6. Take a Break

I mean it. Leave your phone in your room all day while binge-watching “Black Mirror” or “Downton Abby” in your PJs without a care in the world. No emails, no texts, no thoughts of work. Unplug by using the screen-time feature on your smartphone; for example, I set mine to cover from 10pm-6am, so it blocks me from using it unless I override it, and it reports every day so I can see how much time I’ve spent on my phone).

It’s quite eye-opening at first, you’ve been warned! Meditate if that’s your kind of thing. Go to bed at a decent time on the weekends to set yourself up for restful nights of sleep during the week. Again, think about the concept of “OT”-ing yourself. Figure out what fills your cup, and do that! It’s amazing what a lazy Saturday can do for a person.

This definitely isn’t an all-encompassing list, but these points have helped me in my own journey of finding balance as a new grad in a new city. I’d love to hear from you! Do you struggle with work-life balance? What have you found to be helpful?

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