Half of all physicians in the United States experience burnout, and recent surveys have suggested that number could be even higher among women. A recent analysis in the National Academy of Medicine highlighted the importance of addressing how burnout impacts women specifically.
“While women now account for half of new medical school students and an increasingly larger number of practicing physicians, there is a paucity of information about gender-related differences in physician burnout,” wrote author Kim Templeton, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City and past president of the American Medical Women’s Association, and colleagues. “Women physicians differ from their male counterparts: They may lack role models, face challenges of dual-career couples, have to reconcile having only a finite number of years for childbearing, face lack of parity in salaries, receive a lower number of promotions to leadership positions, confront both conscious and unconscious biases, and experience higher rates of sexual harassment.”
Templeton et al. explored the issue at length, providing ways both organizations and individuals can work to potentially reduce burnout. The authors also shared four key strategies for addressing burnout among women physicians going forward:
1. Develop a consensus definition of burnout and a way to measure it.
“Consistent use of standardized terms and assessments, including those used to identify the population being evaluated, will promote optimal research outcomes,” the authors wrote. “The risk of developing burnout is multifactorial and is affected by the physician’s gender, as well as their age, race, ethnicity, or sexual minority status. Additional research is needed to investigate the intersection of these factors in the development of burnout.”
Once more research in this vein has been completed, the researchers added, it will help with the development of more strategies that can address burnout and reduce its impact on physicians.
2. Organizations should prioritize interventions that focus on various ‘personal and institutional factors.’
What factors are leading to burnout? What role is our society as a whole playing in this ongoing issue? For example, Templeton and colleagues explained, women are still largely expected to be the primary caregiver for their household, a clear barrier “to fully equalizing the roles and responsibilities of men and women within the workplace.”
“Until these expectations change, health care organizations must acknowledge these societal demands and provide resources and flexibility in the work environment that can enable women’s success,” the authors wrote.
3. Both conscious and unconscious biases need to be eliminated, as does gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
This will go a long way toward creating a truly equal workplace environment, one where women aren’t stressed about how their coworkers may be viewing or treating them so they can instead put their energy into helping patients.
4. Prioritize physical and mental health of all physicians, with certain strategies in place for women.
“Organizational approaches to improve well-being and reduce burnout should include broad-based programs championed and supported by organizational leadership,” the authors wrote. “Such programs can include mindfulness training, stress management, and exercise. Where appropriate, gender-targeted interventions should be a component of these well-being programs.”
It’s also important for physicians to be given proper time to participate in any workplace programs aimed at improving well-being. And, the researchers added, “we must continue to raise awareness of the increasing incidence of physician suicide.”