The spending of emotional reserves is tough for doctors and nurses

“I need you to do me a favor,” my nurse asked me at the end of our day on Friday.

“Sure,” I answered, “what do you want?”

“Please have a better week next week,” she said with a pained expression. “I don’t think I can handle another one like this week.”

It was a bad week.  There was cancer, there was anxiety, there were family fights, there were very sick children.  It’s not that it’s unusual to we see tough things (I am a doctor), but the grouping of them had all of us trudging home drained of energy.  Spent.

I think that this is one of the toughest thing about being a doctor (and nurse, by my nurse’s question): the spending of emotional reserves.  I am not physically active at work, yet I come home tired.  I don’t have to be busy to feel drained.  It’s not the patients’ fault that I feel tired.  They are coming to me to get the service I offer to them, and I think I do that job well.  The real problem is in me.  The real problem is that I care.

I find myself wishing I didn’t care so much.  I wish I could just do my job and then go home.  I talk to teachers I take care of, and they feel the same way.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a job that was “just a job?”  Wouldn’t it be good to be able to go home and get things done?

This is certainly also true for counselors, social workers, and other professions that “take care of people.”  It sucks the life out of you.

The catch is, of course, that those of us who spend our emotions at work are not the kind to view our work as “just a job.”   Most of the people choose these professions because they want to help people.  The option to suddenly not care about the people you “take care of” is not an option at all.  The minute you stop caring is the minute you want to quit for good.

It does help to get pats on the back.  It helps when people show appreciation.  We doctors have it lucky, because people are not stingy with their thanks.  It’s not that thanks makes hard days easier, it just makes it easier to get up for work the next day.

This drain on our emotions adds potency to the other things that give stress.  This is part of the equation when I gripe about insurance companies, drug prices, and all of the other friction I face on a daily basis.  My nurses probably add “having a stressed out doctor” to that list.

So, I say to all of you out there who feel spent at the end of the day: thank you.  Thank you for caring.  Thank you for not being satisfied with “just doing the job.” Thank you for the emotion you spend on me, my kids, my problems.

Rob Lamberts is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician.

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  • Anonymous

    I am not a physcian, but as a social worker trying to help the mentally ill in the war zone of Mott Haven, New York also had to learn to keep my emotional gas tank topped up.  The smallest things helped–Knowing my mission, remember what mattered, controlling what I could, breathing, a daily dose of physical exercise, healthy self indulgences, learning to see beauty wherever I was,  developing some cheer leaders and a least one complaint partner, learning to forgive myself as well as others, and finally changing my self talk. Sharing in hopes of helping a bit.  Staying strong is a daily struggle. 

  • Joanna Quan

    God Bless you for caring and not just “doing a job”.  It’s INCREDIBLY draining.  Thank you for being there for your patients.

  • Stewart Segal

    I could not have said it better myself!  Keep up the good work.


    Since reading medblogs and gaining insight into the responsibilities of physicians and their challenges, stresses and compassion …I have even more respect for them.  It has been an eye opener to read about all the obstacles continually in front of you,hindering the higher goals.  And it has been profoundly moving to learn just how much some physicians care and are affected by their patients.  It has caused me to want to show extra appreciation to my docs.

    While it is comforting to know that physicians care deeply about their patients, I also hope they can find that balance and nurture themselves.  And I do hope the rewards far outweigh the emotional and physical challenges.

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