An alarming number of doctors are experiencing burnout and are dying by suicide. In an effort to address this issue, the authors of a discussion paper for the National Academy of Medicine, examined the literature around physician burnout and looked specifically at the differing indicators for women physicians.
In the paper, the authors note that the prevalence of burnout may be as much as 20 to 60 per cent higher among women physicians than among their men counterparts. The authors explore how gender-based differences create unique experiences of burnout with the aim of creating new strategies to promote wellness among women physicians.
“This paper reflected our desire to start a conversation on gender-related differences, which are not sufficiently addressed in studies of physician burnout and well-being,” said Dr. Javeed Sukhera, Associate professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a co-author on the discussion paper.
The authors found that there are a number of factors including external and internal factors like imposter syndrome that can have an impact physician burnout. They suggest that gender has a role in the prevalence and influence of these factors. Examples of external factors include things like workload, work hours, career stage, and real or perceived lack of fairness in promotion and compensation.
“I think one of the most important factors that influences women’s experiences of burnout relates to how gender bias and discrimination results in differing day-to-day experiences for men and women,” said Dr. Sukhera. “Women physicians consistently earn less than their male colleagues, are less like to be promoted. Along with sexual harassment, these forces worsen experiences of exhaustion, cynicism, and imposter syndrome.”
The authors note that recognizing these gender-related differences can help to design successful strategies to improve physician wellness and to identify, treat, and prevent burnout.
“Institutions should explore which organizational factors are most important in their learning and practice environments,” the authors write in the discussion paper. “Societal expectations that women are primarily responsible for life at home remain a barrier to fully equalizing the roles and responsibilities of men and women within the outside the workplace. Until these expectations change, health care organizations must acknowledge these societal demands and provide the resources and flexibility in the work environment that can enable women’s success.”
The authors suggest several strategies that organizations can employ to mitigate physician burnout among women:
- Improving the work environment including instituting policies that mitigate some of the challenges of achieving work-life integration, and that more effectively address workplace sexual harassment and gender biases including organization training programs designed to educate participants about unconscious bias, workplace norms, and effective communication and reporting mechanisms.
- Offering more career development opportunities. Intentional efforts to ensure that qualified women are placed on appropriate committees, given necessary administrative staff and are supported for their work are needed to ensure that women are promoted at rates equal to those of men.
- Improve wellbeing of students and trainees in the learning environment.
Dr. Sukhera says the most immediate strategy to start addressing the differences in burnout and to mitigate them is to start talking about them.
“When we hear, read or see research or discourse related to burnout in medicine, we should be asking how such research or discourses relates differently when it comes to gender,” he said. He also says that he challenges researchers to go even further and think about the unique challenges presented by the intersection of burnout and age, race and ethnicity as well. “The next step is to explore how all types of differences influence the experiences of burnout so that we can hold organizations accountable to prioritize the physical and mental health of all physicians, with specific and targeted strategies.”
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The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University is one of Canada’s preeminent medical and dental schools. Established in 1881, it was one of the founding schools of Western University and is known for being the birthplace of family medicine in Canada. For more than 130 years, the School has demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence and a passion for scientific discovery.