Burnout at the Job You Can’t Quit: Family Caregiver Fatigue

30.06.2021 |

Episode #5 of the course Life in the time of burnout by Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura


Here’s the thing we don’t always like to admit, not even to ourselves: sometimes, we may even feel burned out by our loved ones. This can be particularly true after we’ve survived a global pandemic with varying degrees of shelter-at-place, work-from-home, and virtual schooling. Modern life is fast-paced, and the global events of COVID-19 have clearly showed (and exacerbated) the gaps in support many parents and caregivers experience. No matter how much you love your loved ones, being completely responsible for everything, all the time, in close quarters, is a lot to manage.

These pressures can be exacerbated for parents of special needs children, and the spouses or children of aging individuals, because the constant requirements of medical support on top of the normal aspects of caregiving create additional demands on both your time and ability. The medical challenges of COVID-19 have increased daily stress for many family caregivers, who may be filling in the gaps for nursing shortages [1], in addition to all their normal family caregiver duties, including parenting other children, work, and normal household chores.

So, first, let’s take a moment to acknowledge, admit, and accept: sometimes, taking care of your loved ones can be stressful. It’s okay to feel stress. It’s okay to feel frustrated. You are an amazing, loving family caregiver, but you are still a tired human being.

It’s important to talk about this, because it’s only in admitting our stress that we can begin to cope and find new strategies to prevent future burnout. As Sheryl Ziegler, psychologist and author of the book “Mommy Burnout,” explains “burnout is chronic stress gone awry.” [2]

It can help to know that you are not alone in this stress. In fact, one in five US households provides family care. [3] Just because it’s common, doesn’t mean you have to just grit your teeth and bear it. Let’s talk about how you can manage burnout, cope with your ongoing stressors, and build in protective strategies for your future. Your goal is to find the strategies you need so that your relationships with your loved ones stay that way: full of love.


Mindful Acceptance

There is a phrase in Japanese culture, shikata ga nai which doesn’t directly translate to English but essentially means something like an attitude of acceptance when things have gone wrong. It’s like saying “it is what it is,” with mindful acceptance instead of anger or resignation. It’s realizing that maybe this isn’t what you planned, but it’s what you’ve got, and then moving forward. Research has found that this attitude of mindful acceptance can help people survive and move forward after tragedy. [4]

This attitude of shikata ga nai may be helpful as a caregiver, because it’s about accepting and being where you are. It is hard if a loved one has suffered a major health challenge, and there are psychological and physical challenges to caring for a loved one that perhaps, given the choice, you would not have wanted to bear. And so, it can be easy to feel hurt and angry, that life isn’t what you wanted. And then you feel guilty for feeling hurt and angry, when you’re supposed to be a loving caregiver to your loved one. Mindful acceptance offers a way to stop the vicious cycle. You breathe. You acknowledge and accept that this is what it is, this is how your life is. And so, then, you can move forward in that new acceptance to make the best life you have, for you and your loved one.

Dr. Keli Kleindorfer’s research looks at the role of gratitude among mothers of special needs children. She found that even among older mothers who have spent decades caring for their children, finding a sense of gratitude – for substantial things, like faith and family support, and for day-to-day things, like a working washing machine – supported how they managed the potential stress of caregiving. [5] What this means is that gratitude is a useful strategy for helping you cope with stress. It’s about looking at what’s good in your life. Instead of waiting to feel grateful, we should consider how we can actually cultivate gratitude. Think of gratitude as something you grow, not something you magically have. You can do this every day, by choosing to stop and notice what you have: a comfortable bed, food in the fridge, a smile from your loved one.

I don’t have magic answers about caregiver burnout, because being a family caregiver often means you are managing both emotional work (advocating for your loved one with medical professionals, trying to understand their needs) and physical work (special meal preparation, or bathing and toileting assistance, for instance). But the most important thing for you to remember, when you are feeling tired as a caregiver, is that your work matters. You matter. And your caregiving matters. Research shows that caregivers value making sure that their loved ones have a higher quality of life. Even though caregiving is tough, it is also emotionally gratifying and rewarding, and it can yield positive benefits. In a 6-year study at John Hopkins University [6] of 3,500 caregiving spouses, adult children, and relatives, researchers found that caregivers had an 18% reduced rate of death compared to non-caregivers. Perhaps caregiving, although challenging, provides an innate sense of meaning and purpose that promotes you taking care of yourself, so that you can keep on taking care of your loved ones.

For today, take a moment to tell each of your loved ones something you love about them. Cultivate your gratitude for the people you take care of by reminding them you care. Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about how mindfulness can help as a long-term approach to burnout recovery and prevention.



[1] To Keep Their Son Alive, They Sleep in Shifts. And Hope a Nurse Shows Up

[2] Book: Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process by Sheryl Ziegler

[3] Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Gaps in Support for Caregivers

[4] The Japanese Art of Acceptance: Shikata ga nai

[5] Keli Kleindorfer’s doctoral dissertation, Gratitude among Mothers Raising a Child with Special Health Care Needs

[6] Johns Hopkins-Led Study Shows Increased Life Expectancy Among Family Caregivers


Share with friends