How Spousal Fatigue Can Be a Physician's Wake-Up Call

May 3, 2011

I don’t always feel the strain of my decisions to travel or to add extra obligations to my already very full schedule. However, when I look across the breakfast table at my spouse and see that he has a hollow-eyed zombie stare and a three-day growth of stubble on his face, I can recognize how my lack of work-life balance equals his fatigue and burnout.

No - it’s not what you may think. This week’s entry isn’t about being tired of your spouse - it’s about when your spouse is tired. One part of work-life balance is how what you do affects your spouse. When I recently made a job change, in part in favor of a better work-life balance, a large part of my decision involved whether it was going to be better or worse for my husband. He is a stay-at-home-dad and therefore has limited control over his own work hours or environment. It’s really up to me to set the tone for our family - whether we are crazy busy all the time or whether we are able to eat dinner together every night.

It’s challenging for a physician to spend 4 years in medical school and then another 3 to 7 years in residency only to have to turn to another person to solicit his or her opinion on whether or not a job or career decision is the right one. Physicians are also notoriously built up at work - your patients (usually) adore you, your staff depends on you, and your expertise is in constant demand. Voluntarily curtailing that in order to go home and help change dirty diapers or battle your toddler through bath time is not always so appealing.

I don’t always feel the strain of my decisions to travel or to add extra obligations to my already very full schedule. However, when I look across the breakfast table at my spouse and see that he has a hollow-eyed zombie stare and a three-day growth of stubble on his face, I can recognize how my lack of work-life balance equals his fatigue and burnout.

When my husband and I were newly engaged, we attended a dinner at our medical school. One of the department heads was sitting at our table and soon found out we were getting married. He proceeded to regale us with stories of his first (failed) marriage. He described two ambitious, talented, and dedicated physicians who each pursued their career with complete passion. Unfortunately, one of them found a fabulous position on the East Coast and the other found a dream job on the West Coast. Not surprisingly, the marriage didn’t last, although both realized tremendous career success.

And I guess that’s what it’s all about - where you find success. I know that I can still be a successful doctor if I leave on time at night and say no to one more committee membership or invitation to lecture. However, I can’t be a successful wife and mother by failing to keep our whole family in balance.

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