Job sharing: Flexibility has a price

July 1, 2008

Some doctors are doing it successfully, but costs and logistics can be a challenge.

As Jessica J. Whitley was about to finish medical school, a teacher took her aside to offer a bit of advice involving her prospective roles as spouse, parent, and physician. Pick two of the three to focus on, he cautioned her, because you won't be able to do all of them well.

Today, Whitley, a hospitalist at LakeWest Hospital, in Willoughby, OH, isn't so sure that advice holds, at least for people like her. "Of course, you'd have to ask my husband, children, and patients," she says, "but I believe that I do perform all three of the roles very well."

The key to her success, says Whitley, is the job-sharing arrangement that she's worked out with another hospitalist, Amanda H. Lenhard, also a wife and mother. Unlike two physicians who both work a part-time schedule, Whitley and Lenhard actually share the same full-time job, which includes prorated benefits and other perks, including a general acceptance among their colleagues that each is a full physician, despite her reduced hours.

Whitley and Lenhard aren't the only doctors reaping the benefits of a job-sharing arrangement. In a 2004 survey conducted by MomMD, an information site for women in medicine, about 19% of respondents said they were involved in a job share or other flexible work arrangement. Another 60% or so said they'd job share if they could.

Still, in the physician world and beyond, job sharing remains relatively uncommon, in large part because it's so darn hard to pull off.

"The two physicians must have the same work ethic," several experts we talked to said.

Beyond this, physicians who decide to job share must come equipped with a whole host of more common traits-an open communication style, a cooperative attitude, respect for the other person, and flexibility. It also doesn't hurt, say those who've been successful at it, if the two physicians have worked with each other before-or at least know each other well-prior to embarking on their job-sharing arrangement.

"In many ways, it's like a marriage," says Pat Katepoo, a certified career management coach and founder of http://WorkOptions.com/, a resource for people interested in flexible work schedules.

And, like any marriage, there are financial pressures that can affect the partnership beyond the control of either party. "You'll pay full malpractice even though you're working fewer hours," says Judy Bee, a practice management consultant in La Jolla, CA. "That means adjusting your expectations about overhead and income."

To help you decide whether job sharing is right for you, we talked to doctors who, like Jessica Whitley, have been able to pull it off, and to others who weren't able to. Their experiences-and cautionary advice-is crucial to anyone thinking about taking the plunge.