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Do Doctors Have Time: For Family? For Hobbies? For A Social Life?

Do Doctors Have Time: For Family? For Hobbies? For A Social Life?

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Medicine is a notoriously busy career that can leave a lot of doctors struggling to find time for the things they enjoy outside of work.

Which is why if you’re considering a career as a doctor, you may be left wondering if you’ll have time for your family, sports or any resemblance of a social life!

In this recent study, only 26% of doctors reported a satisfactory work-life balance. 70% of all respondents reported their work negatively affected their relationships and 87% reported their work negatively affected their hobbies.

With alarming statistics like these floating about, I wanted to write this article to try and give you an insight into my experiences as a doctor and the reality of trying to juggle work, life, and everything in between.

Do Doctors Have Time For Family & Relationships?

There are few things in life that are more important than loved ones- so I thought I’d address this topic first. As busy as they are, do doctors actually have time for their family?

Doctors do have time for their family and other relationships. It’s true that medicine can strain these relationships more than another profession would, but with careful time management doctors are able to spend plenty of time with their nearest and dearest.

Long, busy, emotionally draining days can really take their toll on doctors. It can be hard to be a fun, supportive spouse if all you want to do is get home and get to bed after work.

Being a doctor myself, and dating a doctor, I’ve certainly got some insight into the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance while working in medicine over the last couple of years.

It’s not all bad news though- doctors are actually less likely to get divorced than other non-healthcare professions as well as several other healthcare professions! (source.)

I believe that if a doctor makes family a priority, then their work won’t have to have a negative impact on the quality of their relationships.

A doctor playing with her two sons

The catch however, is that it does have to be a conscious choice- unlike in other more traditional 9-5 work, family life won’t necessarily just automatically slot around a doctor’s job.

They do have to be made a priority.

This is because doctors will often find themselves working out-of-hours shifts: late evenings, weekends and even nights. So it’s not just a ‘given’ they can spend time with their children every evening for example.

One of my colleagues at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth used to take his daughter to nursery each morning after he’d finished a night shift. Which I think is an excellent example of how with just a bit of creativity doctors can make family life work.

Do Doctors Have Time For Hobbies Or Sports?

If you’re a keen sportsperson, or have tonnes of hobbies, then you’ll understandably want to keep them in your life rather than it being entirely taken over by medicine.

But with such erratic hours is that even possible? Do doctors have time for hobbies or taking part in sports?

Doctors do get enough free time to pursue hobbies or sports. Attending regular training sessions or meetings can however be difficult due to the variable nature of a doctor’s working hours. This means doctors can far more readily engage in activities that don’t require rigid timings.

I’m a keen climber so when I wasn’t working at the hospital you’d often find me at the local bouldering gym.

Climbing is an absolutely fantastic sport that’s great for both building upper body strength as well as your mental health. But there’s one key thing about it that meant it worked so well with my job as a junior doctor…

You could turn up to the bouldering gym when you liked, on whatever day, and be able to have a quality climbing session and a good workout.

You didn’t have to attend regimented training sessions.

My housemate, who loves playing hockey, would frequently find himself having to miss training sessions because he wasn’t free on a Tuesday night.

Now he did play in the team for the season, so it is entirely possible, but because of how doctor’s work patterns are it is just far more convenient to partake in a sport or hobby that doesn’t have set timings for things.

Lots of hospitals actually have their own football teams for example, that have flexible training sessions, because they know staff may struggle to attend organised sessions.

You undoubtedly have the raw ‘time off’ for a hobby or sport, it’s just being able to fit it around your work life that can sometimes be a challenge.

If you’re interested in the real-life figures, check out this article on how many hours doctors actually work.

Do Doctors Have Time For A Social Life?

If you’ve seen Adam Kay’s BBC series ‘This Is Going To Hurt’ then you’ll have witnessed just how many social events Adam, the main character, has to turn down or leave early from because of his work.

It can be hard to imagine that doctors have time for a social life if they spend all their evenings at the hospital…

Despite their work, doctors do have time for a social life. Unfortunately, they can however often not be able to attend events at the last minute as a result of a change in their rota. This means doctors tend to socialise with other doctors who are understanding of the situation and keep plans flexible.

It is true that doctors tend to be incredibly cliquey.

It’s partly because everyone loves to be able to have a good moan about their day to people who will understand, but there’s another reason as well:

Other doctors will be more understanding if, at the last possible moment, you have to pull out from a commitment.

A doctor on the phone to work

It’s a slightly sad state of affairs, but the reality is the hospital can phone a doctor at any moment and ask them to work the next day/that night/as soon as you can get in.

The doctor doesn’t have to say yes, but there’s a certain amount of guilt and responsibility you feel if by saying no if you know the ward will be understaffed, patients will get substandard care, and your colleagues will be swamped.

You can have the best friends in the world, but there’s only so many times you can bail before they start to get tired. Which, although completely reasonable and understandable, can lead to you spending more time with other doctors.

Now I’m not saying that as soon as you become a doctor you’ll lose contact with all your friends and become a work-obsessed loner.

Quite the opposite in fact.

The hospital is actually an incredibly sociable place. You’ll see friendly faces on the wards, at the canteen and in the junior doctor’s mess. On the last Friday of each month our doctor’s mess used to put money behind a local bar and whoever was free would get together for a good night out.

It’s just that doctors can sometimes have a harder time committing to concrete times and dates for events. For example, it’s not just a given that you’ll be free on the weekend. You may be rota’d to work.

Now, given enough notice you can always swap this weekend shift with a colleague, but unfortunately it’s just not as easy as automatically being free for anything outside of the Monday-Friday grind.

How Much Time Off Do Doctors Get?

With all this talk of work and staying late, how much time off do doctors actually get?

Doctors in the NHS will get roughly 30-40 days off each year. The number of days off a doctor gets depends on when they signed their contract and at what level of training they are. Junior doctors initially only get 27 days of leave whereas consultants generally get 6 weeks off.

Yes, as a foundation year 1 or 2 doctor you only get 27 days of leave. Which isn’t a lot when you have to eek it out over the year.

You’re also not guaranteed bank holidays off either. However, if you do find yourself working on a public holiday then you’ll get an extra day of leave in lieu.

As a junior doctor at Derriford hospital, a rough rule of thumb was that you’d have either Christmas or New Year’s Eve off. Not both. But, you would get an extra day of leave that you could tack on to whatever holiday you had planned for later in the year.

As you progress through your career you do thankfully accrue more leave. It can also be far easier to work part-time as a consultant compared to when you’re still in training.

Physically taking this time off can sometimes be a bit of a challenge though. I remember being in awe of a friend of mine when he described how he could just casually mention to his boss that he fancied the next day off and it was a done deal.

Sadly in the NHS it’s a very different story. As a junior doctor you can only take your leave on ‘normal working days.’ I.e. days that you’re scheduled to work the standard day shift pattern. So not night shifts, not late shifts, not weekends etc. etc.

Considering how varied you work schedule can be, this means it can actually be a bit of a challenge finding a suitable stretch of normal working days around the time that you want to take your leave.

To get around this you can start swapping shifts with colleagues but it quickly gets quite messy- so it is just a lot easier to work around what you’ve got.

Once you’ve found this goldilocks zone you’ll then generally need to give at least a month’s notice to your rota coordinator. A far cry from my friend’s casual conversation by the water cooler.

Do Doctors Work On Weekends In The UK?

If you love Saturdays as much as I do, you may be wanting to figure out whether doctors have to work on weekends before you apply to medical school…

Doctors in the UK do have to work on weekends. How frequently this is the case will depend on their specialty, where they work in the country and their individual contract. As a rule of thumb, a junior doctor might be expected to work one in every six weekends.

Hospitals don’t just shut down on Saturday and Sunday and then open up again on Monday. So sadly, that does mean as a doctor you’ll end up having to work on the weekend at some point.

Hospitals do however generally run on a ‘skeleton staff’ at weekends. Which is a mixed blessing:

It’s a positive because it means you end up having to work fewer weekends than you otherwise would if it was full staffing levels… and it’s a negative because it means if you are working it’s normally pretty hectic!

Doctors working on a busy weekend shift

Just as with public holidays, you will get extra time off in compensation if you do end up having to work on the weekend. So that might look like having Monday and Tuesday off the next week.

These alternative days off can be great for doing things that would otherwise be packed on a weekend- like going to a theme park for example. However, the seven day run of Monday-Sunday work can be pretty gruelling if they’re busy days.

How many weekends you work as a doctor is very job dependent. GPs for example rarely work weekends- as a junior doctor working in the community I didn’t have to do a single one in the four months I was there!

At the other end of the spectrum, I think I worked the most weekends of my two years as a foundation doctor while working in the Accident & Emergency department.

Weekend shifts can be a pain if they get in the way of you going to your best friend’s birthday party. You are able to swap them around with your colleagues, but it’s just a bit of an admin headache to worry about before you RSVP.

I wouldn’t let the idea of slogging away on a Saturday put you off from studying medicine though. At the end of the day it’s not too hard to make one-in-six weekends work around your social life and in a weird way it can be quite fun being on the wards when everyone else is at home.

Final Thoughts

Having worked as a junior doctor now for a couple of years I can confirm my relationship hasn’t fallen apart, I can still practice my hobbies and I do still have a social life.

We’re not always as insanely busy as popular culture might make us look.

However, the theme that’s run through each aspect of this article is that things aren’t just a given when you’re working in medicine.

It’s not just a given you’ll be free one evening, it’s not just a given that you’ll be free on the weekend and it’s not just a given that you’ll be able to get leave for a particular date.

As a doctor, you will have to put a bit more conscious effort into making life work- rather than having it all easily fall into place. But you can make it work.

Hopefully this will have helped dispel some myths over how much time doctors actually have and reassured you that life doesn’t just grind to a halt if you do choose to go to medical school!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.