Every weekday morning I’m awoken by the harsh chirping alarm on my phone at 4:45 am. Admittedly, it usually takes a couple rounds of snooze-hitting before the routine really begins. I give myself just enough time to dress and put my face on, then hastily throw clothes and toiletries into a carry-on-sized suitcase. If I’m lucky, I’ve managed to coax my husband out of bed to slip on some sweatpants and a wool coat and wander out into the hostile cold of 5:30 am northeastern North Dakota January. I finish the ritual as he starts my car and shovels me out of my parking space, the hour-long drive ready to commence.
I work in rural Thief River Falls, Minnesota, and commute from my apartment in Grand Forks, North Dakota. While this commute time may not be odd for those living in metropolitan areas, I believe my situation is unique. First, I commute back and forth 1-2 round trips per week. Due to the significant distance I travel (50 miles) and the harsh Northwestern Minnesota winters, I live in the town in which I work during the week and return to my “home base” in North Dakota on weekends. Second, my husband attends medical school and I work full-time in an outpatient orthopedic clinic—both of which can require significant commitment and long hours.
I’ve been practicing physical therapy for three years, and I can attest to the challenges we therapists face when trying to find a balance between commuting, working, and having a personal life. I know I am not alone.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 139 million Americans commute to work each day (a commute defined as more than 20 minutes separating home and place of work). Though commute times vary by region, the average American commutes 26 minutes — a 20% increase since the 1980s. The state with the longest commute time is New York with an average 32-minute hike each way. One factor contributing to this trend of longer commutes is a longstanding shift in Americans moving out of urban areas in favor of more affordable housing and increased space in the suburbs. However, longer treks to work are associated with negative health outcomes including stress, fatigue, decreased physical activity, increased obesity, and lower social participation.
So how can healthcare providers find harmony between commuting, working, and spending time with family and friends?
1. Don’t strive for work-life “balance.” Strive for work-life “integration.”
The encroachment of labor-like activity into other spheres of life is a well-known phenomenon common to many millennials and healthcare professionals. Our friends come to us seeking advice on health and well-being. We are perceived as experts in the community. Even in our “free time” we devour the latest research in order to provide the best treatments and secure the best outcomes for patients.
Journalist Emily Hill identifies 5 fallacies associated with work-life balance. I personally think these fallacies are mostly spot-on. One fallacy is to think that “balance” is static and must be obtained so that it can be solidified and maintained. But juggling priorities is inherently dynamic and changes throughout life. What is important to a person today may not be important five years in the future. This is why I prefer to think about work-life “integration.” It implies synergy between all aspects of life including family, work, and personal well-being instead of conflict between competing forces.
2. Live in the present.
Prioritizing in-the-moment experience has been shown to increase happiness and being distracted seems to decrease happiness. When at work, use this time to focus on being an effective leader and healthcare provider. Active listening is important to patients and colleagues. By living in the moment, healthcare providers can improve empathy and optimize patient-centered care. Additionally, active listening can enhance collegial relationships by encouraging more candid feedback and deepening social bonds. When at home, focus on spending time with the people you love most.
3. Make commuting productive.
If faced with a long commute, use this time to do something productive. This can include listening to podcasts, audiobooks, the news or music playlists. If your commute does not involve driving, cycling, or personal attention to transportation (e.g. if you live in Brooklyn and take the subway), this time can be used to read for work or pleasure. These activities not only contribute to learning but also foster a feeling of increased productivity. Solo commuting also provides an opportunity for self-reflection
4. Set aside time for meal prep.
I have found that commuting a long distance makes it more difficult to eat healthy. It is easy to feel tired and not want to cook after a long day. Meal preparation helps people avoid impulse eating from restaurants, fast food establishments, or other convenience meals low in nutritional value. Investing time cooking on weekends decreases the time needed to cook during the week. Packing healthy snacks and lunches will also decrease the chances of putting on pounds.
A long commute doesn’t have to cause dissonance in work-life integration. I designate my hour-long drive for reflection and learning. I also use weekends to prepare for the workweek so I can minimize the temptation to fall into unhealthy habits. It may require an extra level of conscientiousness, but I certainly find it a worthy cause.
At Rehab Alternatives, we place physical therapists (PTs), physical therapist assistants (PTAs), occupational therapists (OTs), certified occupational therapist assistants (COTAs), and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) in permanent staffing jobs throughout the state of New York. Most of our clinicians commute less than 30 minutes – while we do have some who travel about an hour to work. Currently, we are filling full-time physical therapy jobs in Rhinebeck, New York – and most of our candidates are within a 30-mile radius of the 12572 zip code. How long is your current commute to work? Are you interested in a physical therapy or rehab director job in Rhinebeck? Check out our job postings and apply online.