If you or a loved one is in the medical field then the term “burnout” is most likely familiar to you. Burnout among medical professionals is on the rise recently due to a lot of factors – increased work hours, lower staffing, increased acuity of patients, almost no tolerance for mistakes from management,  etc etc. I felt the effects of burnout myself when I was working as a nurse.

Physician burnout specifically  is a very real thing now and it’s causing a lot of problems for physicians and the patients they care for. There is an increase in physician depression and suicide rates. Patient safety can be compromised as a result of physician burnout. The effects are far reaching and it’s a problem that the medical community needs to get on top of, quite frankly – and soon.

But there is a group of people, directly affected by physician burnout, who are also experiencing burnout in a major way. They are also suffering from physical and emotional exhaustion, guilt, stress, loneliness and depression. They are also feeling like they are constantly giving, giving, giving – until they are completely spent. And hardly anyone knows it. 

These people are the doctor spouses. Those who are married or in a relationship with a physician. The doctor wives. We are the other side of the coin when it comes to physician burnout. We are the untold story.

There is just no getting around it. When you have burnout in a doctor, you have burnout in his family and especially in his spouse or significant other.

If you are a doctor’s wife then you know what I’m talking about. When your doctor husband is stretched thin, so are you. When he is working insane hours, so are you. When he is just plain burned out, so are you.

Do your long work hours involve slaving away at the hospital all day, answering pages, performing surgery, or writing orders? Most likely not. But I know with your husband gone all day everyday (or all night every night) that you are putting in long hours just trying to keep your life together. That since he cannot be there, you have to. And often everything is on you and you alone.

When the kids are sick, it’s you who takes care of them on your own. When the toilet breaks or the sink leaks, it’s you who frantically tries to figure out how to fix it. When bills need to be paid, lawns need mowing, cars need maintenance, kids need homework help, and sports and concerts need to be attended by supportive parents, guess who does it? That’s right, it’s you. And ONLY you.

Is it any wonder why doctor’s wives get burned out? We do so much behind the scenes, even when our husbands are working fairly decent hours. But when our doctor husband’s are stretched to the limit, working call after call after call shift with not nearly enough days off to recover like a normal human being, we feel the effects of it. They shift into survival mode and we do too, out of necessity. And people can live at survival mode for only so long before they hit burnout.

So what am I talking about, when I say burnout? I mean you hit a place where you are beyond exhausted – physically, mentally, and emotionally. You are so exhausted in every single aspect of you that you start to become apathetic – where you just don’t care much about anything anymore. You go through the motions but you don’t FEEL anymore- happy, sad, angry, worried… none of those. You just merely exist. If someone were to ask you, “What do you enjoy doing? What are your hobbies?”, you wouldn’t even know how to answer them, because you are just surviving, day after day after day. And you are so so tired.

So what do you do, when you are feeling burned out? What do you do if you read the above paragraph and are nodding your head, going, “Yes, YES! This is totally me!” What should you do about it?

physician burnout doctor's wife

1. Recharge Your Batteries

If you are burned out you are low on fuel. You are running on empty, and you need to recharge and refuel. How do you do that?

You put your responsibilities and your never-ending to-do list to the side and you do something for YOU – Every. Single. Day. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or time-intensive, just do something that is purely for you.. Not for anyone else – not the kids, not your husband, not your friends… no. Do something for you. Only you know what that is, so do it! And do it daily!

It could be something as simple as taking a bath. Or going for a walk around your block after the kids are in bed. Or watching your favorite TV show or calling up a friend. Instead of folding laundry during your toddler’s naptime, watch your favorite series on Netflix or work on that fun project you’ve been putting off. Whatever it is that you haven’t been doing because you’ve been so busy, make the time now to do it. Fit it in.

2. Learn to Say “No”

If you are burned out you absolutely cannot take one more thing on our plate. So if people are asking things of you, know your limits and learn to say no. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person if you say “no” and can’t help everyone or do everything. It means you are human. You might be able to step in and do more once you aren’t stretched so thin, but for now, turn down those extra responsibilities.

I’ve had to do this when I’ve been burnt out during my husband’s residency. I remember a specific time when someone in my church asked me to do something and I had to say no. I normally love doing everything I can to be involved in my faith and my church, but this time I just said something like, “I am barely surviving with my little family right now. I feel like I am drowning. I cannot take on one more thing. I’m so sorry.” He had no idea I was struggling so much and he completely respected that. And ever since then, it’s gotten easier and easier to say no.

3. Ask For Help. Rely on Your Village.

Remember to ask for help. As doctor’s wives sometimes we are so used to being independent (out of necessity) that we think we can manage everything on our own. Even the hard times. But when we are drowning and have hit our max, we need to reach out and ask for help. Don’t be afraid to admit that you are struggling. That you are just DONE. Most people have no idea how hard you are working and how much you need them. So let your walls down and let them help you. Ask for it.

Ask a friend to take the kids for the afternoon so you can nap. Ask someone to grab something for you while they are at the store so you don’t have to. Take time to talk to someone about what you’re going through, so you aren’t doing it alone anymore.

4. Let Things Go

If you are burned out, you need to say no to additional responsibilities but you also need to just let things go. You are in survival mode and are trying to recover. So let go of the idea that your house needs to be clean. Let go of the idea that you need to be exercising everyday, cooking stellar meals, or looking put together at all times. Embrace the frozen pizza and the yoga pants. Do what you need to to get by! Just let go of the things that really don’t matter all that much.

Burnout is a real thing, for physicians and for their spouses. But thankfully, just like it is possible to recover from physician burnout, it is possible to recover from “doctor wife burnout” too. You will feel like YOU again, I promise.