By Alaina Trivax, WCI Columnist
When I first got married, I worked at a boutique consulting firm. It was a very demanding job; there was a “whatever it takes” culture–an expectation that we would work relentlessly to ensure that our clients were satisfied. My boss would often send over projects at 9 or 10pm, requesting completed products by the following morning. This job had me exhausted, overwhelmed, and just generally miserable.
My husband, Brandon, who was halfway through his PM&R residency at the time, sat me down one night and said so bluntly, “Alaina, you do not have to do this job. You can quit.” That should have been an obvious option, but it wasn’t. I had worked hard to get to this role, and I really thought I should make it work. Until he pointed it out, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I could leave.
We made an exit plan for me that night. I began applying for teaching jobs again and got excited about heading back into the classroom. That conversation led me to the job I’m in now as a middle school teacher—a job I find fulfilling and enjoyable and one that allows me to (at least somewhat) balance my professional and home lives.
I’m sharing all of this because I want to be clear: this is my take on physician burnout, and it’s not a simple story of a good wife creating a happy home for her doctor husband. Marriage is a commitment by both partners, and each partner has a responsibility to support the other. Brandon intervened when my job was sucking the life out of me; I would hope to do the same for him if ever necessary.
So, What Does the Doctor Say?
Overall, my husband, who’s now been an attending for almost three years, actually feels pretty good about his job and all that it demands, but we both keep an eye out for any signs of overwhelm and disillusionment. I asked him: what do I do that helps? What else could I do? I’ve shared some highlights from our conversation below.
Alaina: I try hard not to be resentful of the demands and time that your job requires. Every choice you make is with our family at the front of your mind–you’re working the hours that you do in order to support the life we’ve chosen to pursue. How would you say this comes across to you? I’m sure (I know!) there are times when things get the better of me and some bitterness comes out. What kind of impact does this have on you?
Brandon: I appreciate the fact that you try to make sure I can focus on my job—even when I have to bring the work home. I mean, in theory, I could get everything done at work—I’d just have to stay later and would miss the evenings with our kids. So instead, I come home for dinner and bedtime with the plan of finishing notes after they go to bed. Often, this means that you’re cleaning the kitchen while I sit on the couch doing notes.
Alaina: Yeah, that’s usually the thing that makes me nuts—when you’re sitting down to finish notes while I’m frantically trying to prep our house for another day.
Brandon: It’s important to me—and I think to you, too—that I’m home to spend time with the kids on the weekdays, and this is part of that balance. I imagine I would feel a lot more resentment toward my job if I weren't able to have these evenings with our family. And, sure, I’m sitting down on the couch doing the notes—but it’s not like I’m actually relaxing. I hope you understand that I try my best to help you in any way I can. However, sometimes I recognize I lack in this area.
Alaina: It’s so hard to balance it all! I do appreciate that you are home for dinnertime every single day. You’ve been working some extra weekends these past few years to help pay off our student loans. These additional shifts are tough on you and tough on me. Neither of us gets any sort of a break for that whole stretch. We’re just coming out of the latest double weekend, scheduled back-to-back for 19 straight days of work. Do you worry that taking on these extra shifts could lead you to burning out?
Brandon: No. The student loan debt is far more likely to cause me to burn out compared to a few extra weekends. The fact that over half of my monthly income has to be allocated toward our debt is a pretty big burden on me. Working these extra weekends allows us to send some extra money toward student loans so that they are paid off sooner. As soon as we have that student loan debt gone, I plan to stop taking on any additional shifts.
Alaina: Yeah, that’s fair. Did you see we're down under $190,000 on those loans? Making progress [we were a little over $330,000 when Brandon started as an attending in July 2020.]! Remember that consulting job I had when we first got married? What was it that made you realize I’d reached a breaking point with that role?
Brandon: I’d say it was pretty obvious from the outside. You were not in a good place emotionally. At all. And, there was no reason for you to be that miserable.
Alaina: I was definitely unhappy in that job. I’m curious–what do you think it would look like if you reached your breaking point?
Brandon: If I truly got burnt out, I’d likely react by withdrawing. I’d become unmotivated, not wanting to engage with work or family stuff.
Alaina: That’s helpful for me to know. Let’s talk a little about our work schedules. As a teacher, I get the holidays and summers off with our kids. You know I’m all about taking them places and doing things—I have to leave the house so I don’t lose my mind! Are you ever resentful of the adventures that I take the boys on without you? How does that impact your feelings about work?
Brandon: Yeah, sometimes. I’m not resentful of you and the fact that you’re having fun with the boys. I’m glad you get to help them have all these experiences. But yes, sometimes I’m frustrated that my job prevents me from being able to do all those things with you and the boys. I do try to remind myself, though, that your schedule doesn’t really compare to any other job. You work long days during the school year, but when you’re off, you’re off. Even if I were in a different field, it would still be unlikely that I could join you guys for a morning petting zoo trip on a random Tuesday in June.
Alaina: There are definitely times I feel guilty about taking the boys to do stuff without you. Not that a day on the lake with two small children is relaxing for me, but I do feel bad that you’re missing out on the fun. This past year, you’ve started getting really into golfing as a hobby. I’ll be honest: at first, I was a little irritated that you were spending your half-day afternoon at the driving range. I get a lot of vacation days throughout the year, but it’s rare that I have a day without the kids, so the idea that you could go do something fun during the middle of a weekday without the kids annoyed me a little. I’m sorry about that. I really did try to turn it around and be supportive of this for you. Has exploring this hobby impacted you and your overall wellness—both as a physician and as a husband and father?
Brandon: Well, it was great, but two things. 1) It’s like an hour once a week. Definitely not a whole afternoon. 2) I haven’t been able to go for like two months now. These daycare germs keep sending our kids home, and they are wrecking my schedule. But when I was going, it was nice to have a little bit of time to myself—I would put headphones in and just focus on my golf game for an hour. It was good to get away from my job and away from the demands of our life at home for even just a little while.
Alaina: I think that pursuing a hobby has been really good for you. I can imagine it’s nice to have something other than work to focus your energy on. Overall, do you think you’re at risk of burning out as a physician? Is there anything I could do to help prevent that or to just better support your career in general?
Brandon: Yes. Of course. The job is hard. I’m pulled in multiple different directions, and administrative work on top of the actual medical work that I trained for makes it hard to maintain a work-life balance. As far as what you could do . . . I don’t really have an answer to that one. I’m not sure if there is too much you can do to prevent me from getting burned out. I suppose keeping an eye on how I’m balancing things and checking in during the tough stretches is helpful. Honestly, I think most physicians are at risk of burning out—it’s tough to find any sort of work-life balance in this field.
Preventing Burnout in Your Physician Spouse
That was a pretty tough conversation. Honestly, I was a little surprised to hear that there’s not much I can do to prevent him from burning out in his career. There are times when I’m tempted to take on a few extra chores in an attempt to make his days easier. Sometimes, it works out—I’ll make the baby’s bottles in the morning if he’s needing a few extra minutes to run through patient notes. Other times, though, I just end up feeling resentful that I’m having to “pick up the slack,” and that really isn’t helpful for either of us.
As I said in the beginning, I don’t mean for this to sound like a directive to create a happy home for your doctor spouse. That is absolutely the job of both partners. Still, I know my husband’s job is hard. His days are long; the work is exhausting. If he were to reach the point of burning out, it would have a big impact on both of us and our kids. The logistical changes and emotional blow of having to find a new job would be tough. He’s happy in his role right now, and it’s important to our family he stays that way. So, moving forward, I honestly might just ask: “It seems like work is really overwhelming this week. What can I do to help?”
What strategies have you or your spouse undergone to prevent burnout? Have you found something that works? Is the threat of burnout constantly in the back of your mind? Comment below!
We know you visit The White Coat Investor to learn about investment strategies and planning, and we’ve always strived to teach financial literacy to physicians, high earners, and anybody else who finds their way here. But the COVID pandemic has also shined a light on physician burnout and its dangers. That’s why we feel compelled to run articles and columns like the one you just read—to make sure white coat investors stay mentally healthy. We know mental wellness is what leads to a long, fruitful financial life, and we’ll continue to run pieces like this because combatting burnout has become such an important part of everybody’s financial journey.