Although we would otherwise think and hope it, there remains a culture within medicine that disincentivises time off for anything, from parental leave to sabbaticals. The reasons for this are myriad, from concerns about de-skilling to the fear of the unknown and coming off the conveyor belt of speciality training.
There is, of course, security and contentment in knowing where you are heading and following a chosen and well-trodden path, weathered by many before us. But what are we denying ourselves by racing to the end without exploring the diverse options available to us? Despite being a motivated, intelligent and compassionate workforce, with many transferable skills, it sometimes feels like our choices are limited.
During my maternity leave, I did not have the time to do much more than nurture my children, both of whom are intent on removing themselves from the gene pool in interesting ways. But the time away from clinical practice let me breathe, reflect on my career so far and derive meaning in my role as a doctor. I was able to explore ideas I would not have normally, like writing; I also got back to doing art, using skills developed during the warm haze of my grammar school years, but left languishing in some part of my mind not regularly used for analysing blood results and honing consultation skills. I optimised this period of reflection further by making use of a fantastic mentor, who helped me realise my strengths and the aspects of my work that gave me real satisfaction. On my return to the practice, I felt better able to direct my training with purpose and creativity.
I do not think that I would have achieved this without the time off, as the emotional and mental strain of work leaves little room for fanciful ideas at the end of each day. It is no surprise that the mental health of medics is one of the poorest of any professional in the country, as we so rarely give ourselves a break. Taking time off may be very useful to check in with our inner id, to ensure we are happy on the path we find ourselves – or give us a stimulus to find another one.
This experience has also spilled over into other aspects of my life. By feeling like I am doing something meaningful at work, I am able to take this personal sense of value and make the limited time I have with my family richer and more colourful. And the newfound purpose adds to the feeling that hopefully I will leave behind something grander and more significant, than the day to day tasks of reassurance, negotiation and docman reviews.
So be brave and take a break from work! Take pause and stock of your place in it all. You only get one chance at this and after all, as they say, its all about the journey.