Thinking about Working Part-time? Here Are Some Tips

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By Warren & Marsha Holleman

Sure, it’s nice to think about cutting back on the work hours and spending more time at home with the kids or out on the trails getting fit. But how do you really make that decision? And if you do decide to work part-time, how do you make the most of it?

After struggling to juggle two full-time careers with all the other things we wanted to do, we decided to work part-time. We don’t recommend it for everybody, but for us it was the best decision we ever made. It reduced our stress and probably saved our marriage.

We both work in health care: Marsha is a physician and Warren runs a wellness program. Perhaps some of the issues we faced were particular to our situation, but for the most part they were the same issues every couple struggles with. If you’re thinking of working part-time, consider these lessons we learned along the way.

  1. Decide how much money you need to be happy.

If you decide to work part-time, you won’t be able to afford the same material possessions as your colleagues. You’ll have a smaller house, a less expensive car, and you won’t be taking many vacations to Bali. If these prospects trouble you, then it’s a no-brainer: keep working full-time. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to live on a budget, then working part-time may be right for you. The good news is that physician salaries are high enough that you can work part-time and still live comfortably. And the research shows that being comfortable is all you need to be happy. In fact, too much wealth tends to make people less happy.1

When we decided to make the change to part-time, we felt an immediate release of tension. We had been juggling our careers, our marriage, and our own self-care, and things were going great. Then into the mix came our children, and it was more than we could handle. Working part-time restored our joy and our sanity. But the price was that we had to discipline ourselves to set a budget and live within it. We became acutely aware of that budget each time we went grocery shopping. And as we approached the end of each month. Of course, once our kids left home and we returned to working full-time, we had so much money we didn’t know what to do. We’d look at each other and say, “We’re rich!” At least, that’s the way we felt. And now grocery shopping is much more carefree.

  1. Decide whether your goal is career success or career satisfaction.

In addition to thinking about your income, you also need to think about your career ambitions and your professional reputation. How important is it to you to be regarded as a “top gun” in your field? In many organizations, working part-time carries with it a stigma of not being fully invested in your career. If you work for such an organization, and your goal is career success, then you should probably stick with full-time. Or else find a new place to work.

If career satisfaction is more important to you than career success, then working part-time may be right for you. That’s what we discovered when we made the switch. We both worked in academic medicine, where career success was defined in terms of being promoted to administrative positions such as committee chair, medical director, department chair, and so on. Working part-time probably helped us avoid promotions that would pivot us away from work that filled our lives with meaning and toward administrative work that gave us headaches. Perhaps we’re rationalizing here, but most days we appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to focus our careers on patient care and teaching. We generally leave work at a reasonable hour and go home to personal and family priorities, while others get paid the big bucks to stay late and worry about budgets and grants, meetings and paperwork. 

  1. Decide what role you want in your children’s lives.

If one of you is a physician, and you both want to work full-time and have children, you may need to recruit others to do a chunk of the parental duties: nannies, au pairs, and baby sitters; grandparents, friends, and neighbors; teachers, coaches, and after-school programs; scout leaders and Sunday School teachers. Not to mention electronic babysitters such as television, video games, and social media. Whether we work full-time or not, we all recruit a village to help raise a child. Children benefit from exposure to the wider community. The question we all need to ask ourselves is: What role do we want to play in our children’s growth and development?

In our case, we decided we wanted to have a daily, active role in our children’s lives, and we found we weren’t able to do that and maintain two full-time careers. Time and again we found ourselves “outsourcing” our parenting responsibilities and asking, “Why bother to have children if we aren’t going to raise them?” So, working less and parenting more felt right for us. We have many friends who chose differently, delegating more parenting responsibilities to nannies and grandparents. And, some of our friends have been successful at negotiating for more flexible (full-time) work arrangements, allowing them to more easily juggle parenting and work duties.

  1. Don’t ask your boss for advice.

Does your boss share your values and priorities? If you’re thinking of work part-time, the answer to that question is probably “no.” Which is fine. All you really need is a boss who truly understands and respects those values and priorities. But even that level of support can be rare, particularly in certain types of organizations. So choose other mentors and role models, and choose carefully. If work-life balance is the reason you’re thinking of working part-time, find role models who practice good self-care and are engaged with their family, friends, and community. If parenting is a primary concern, get advice from friends and colleagues who’ve raised their children well. And don’t limit yourself to mentors and role models from within the health professions. Get a broad range of viewpoints and life experiences.

When we were struggling to balance our professional and personal responsibilities, our bosses and mentors were mostly men who had stay-at-home wives. They didn’t understand why we couldn’t stay late at work each evening for scheduled meetings and unscheduled crises. Or why we couldn’t go out to dinner every time a job candidate came to town. Today’s bosses and mentors are more likely to be part of a two-career couple, but that still doesn’t mean they slice the pie the way you do. Consider a variety of perspectives before making your decision.

  1. Do the math, and slice the pie.

The average workload of US doctors is nearly 60 hours per week.1 That’s 7am to 7pm Monday through Friday. Or 8am to 6pm on weekdays and 10 hours of call on the weekend. However you configure it, it’s a lot of time away from home. And it’s not just the time; it’s also the energy. A physician’s work is very demanding, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. A person who works this hard will not have time or energy to enjoy the “normal” things that other people do. Practical things like buying groceries, cooking meals, and mowing the lawn. Healthy things like exercise, recreation, and hobbies. Not to mention making a marriage, raising a family, and engaging with friends, neighbors, and the wider community. And sleep—uninterrupted, precious sleep.

When the two of us sat down and made a list of all the things we wanted to do outside our jobs, we realized we needed to reduce the amount of time spent at work. We also recognized that we were somewhat unique. (And, we still are.) Many of our colleagues are satisfied with a shorter list of non-work activities. Others hire more outside assistance with chores, errands, and childcare, or arrange to have live-in nannies or grandparents. And some simply require less sleep than we do, or do a more efficient job of integrating work and life. The key here is to accept the reality that you can only slice the pie so many ways. If you spend more time at work, you’ll have less time for non-work activities.

  1. Be assertive yet flexible.

When you propose to work part-time, most bosses will say “no.” So when you negotiate, you’ve got to be willing to walk away from your job. Sometimes that’s the only way to convince them to make an alternative work arrangement. The other strategy is to come to them with a job offer from another organization. If neither of these tactics works, use that opportunity to find work elsewhere. You can bloom in someone else’s garden.

For us, a big part of successfully negotiating to a part-time arrangement was to be flexible in terms of salary. Generally organizations will use your high salary against you: “If you shift to part time . . . You won’t get a bonus at the end of the year.” Or: “You won’t get your full benefits.” Or: “We’ll have to demote you to a lower salary range.” Where I work we call that “the golden handcuffs.” It’s human nature to hold on to the stuff we acquire, but if we do too much of that, we’ll find ourselves tagging along like a dog on a leash. If you’re willing to give up a few dollars and just say “no,” you can get a lot in terms of nonmaterial benefits. Things like time, energy, and sleep. And other good stuff, such as relationships, health, and happiness.

  1. Keep it fair.

The most straightforward way to be fair is for each spouse to take equal amounts of time away from work. For example, you could both agree to work .60FTE. Or you could take turns working halftime. Where that isn’t feasible, or desirable, a lot of discussion and negotiation is needed to assure that one doesn’t do too much giving or the other too much taking. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we keep ledgers on our spouses and partners, and if one of us stores up too much capital, we develop anger, resentments, and regrets. These will destroy a relationship.3

In our experience, many health organizations make it nearly impossible to work part-time. When one of us met with such resistance, there was a temptation to expect the other spouse to take up the slack at home, while working part-time. A more equitable solution, as it turned out, was to leave the job entirely and find a more flexible employer. Each of us had that experience, and while it was stressful initially, the change proved to enrich our experience and our careers.

  1. Even if you decide to work part-time, recognize that it may not be truly part-time.

For physicians, and many other professionals as well, working full time means working way more than 40 hours per week. So even if you choose to work part-time, you may find yourself working close to full-time hours. If you’re scheduled to work a half-day, you’ll wind up working into the afternoon. If you’re scheduled to have a day off, there will often be charts to review, prescriptions to fill, patients to call, or meetings you can’t miss.

In our experience, it was a constant struggle to set and maintain boundaries—or, to accept that we’d always be working uncompensated hours. We never found a perfect solution, but our best was to schedule full days of work alternating with off days, rather than half-days of work, when work tends to spill over and become a full day. One physician we know was able to take this to the next level and work every other week. The real solutions, for us, were psychological and spiritual. Psychological: Lowering the expectation that we’d be able to place neat boundaries around our work. Spiritual: Recognizing that we worked for meaning, not for money, and working “overtime” was part of the privilege of being a healer.

  1. Use you part-time status as leverage for “crafting” your job to focus on the things that matter most.

If you make the decision to cut back to part-time, strategize to keep the parts of your job you like and to ditch the parts you don’t. This isn’t always possible, of course, but if you think outside the box and are willing to let go of old things and try new ones, doors often open. Sometimes those doors open within your current organization. Other times, elsewhere. Sometimes they open within your current career field, and other times you need more training to broaden your horizons.

When it was WH’s turn to shift from full-time to part-time, he was the director of a community health center and a large portion of the job was fundraising and attending meetings, which he found increasingly burdensome and unfulfilling. So he resigned his director position and went to work as a member of the clinic staff. This proved helpful on multiple fronts. He rediscovered the clinical and teaching work that gave his life joy and meaning. It allowed others to take on leadership roles while WH assumed a mentoring role. And, it prevented him from burning out.

  1. Be grateful that you have a choice.

As health professionals we make good incomes that allow us the option to work part-time and still support ourselves and our families. The majority of the world’s population doesn’t have that option. We remind ourselves each day how fortunate we are, and we try not to take these privileges for granted.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like our story of “Why We Decided to ‘Throw Away Our Promising Careers’ and Work Part-time” and also “Married to Medicine: My Menage a Trois.” Both are published in KevinMD.
The photo is Marsha running at her favorite place, the Balcones Canyonlands near Oatmeal, Texas. It’s about an hour northwest of Austin.
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