Healthcare News & Insights

Female doctors have high rates of burnout: Here’s why

Studies show women make excellent physicians, but they experience burnout at higher rates than their male colleagues. Female doctors also have higher rates of depression than average – so what’s going on? 

A study from JAMA Internal Medicine showed patients treated by female physicians had lower mortality and readmission rates compared to their male counterparts in the same hospital.

Female doctors spend more time with their patients on office visits, and their patients receive more preventive care, education and counseling, and psychosocial attention, according to Health Psychology.

So why are they experiencing burnout at double the rate of their male colleagues? And why do they have comparatively higher rates of depression and suicide (per research in the American Journal of Psychiatry)?

There’s no single reason, and many physicians of all genders are burning out and leaving clinical practice.

What women face

But part of the unique struggle female doctors face is that of sexism in their environments – from patients, other providers and staff members in their organizations, as discussed in an article by Dr. Rebekah Bernard, a family physician from Florida, in Medical Economics.

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 75% of female physicians have been sexually harassed by patients at some point in their career.

The emotions faced by women experiencing sexual harassment, usually embarrassment, anger and frustration, create a negative relationship between providers and patients. Those feelings can also lead to a general sense of exhaustion with medicine and make it hard to provide the best quality of care.

And it’s not necessarily obvious.

Most women want to report sexual harassment or sexism, but stay silent out of embarrassment or fear that they’ll face retaliation – especially if the sexual harassment is coming from a supervisor.

Some studies, however, show that men who were told they were making sexist remarks reacted positively, apologizing for the comments. The men confronted by women about their sexism reported liking the woman more after she spoke up.

Besides sexual harassment, women in medicine experience other issues that contribute to burnout. For example, female doctors are paid on average 10% less a year than their male colleagues, which adds up to about $20,000, according to a separate JAMA Internal Medicine study.

How to help

Knowing this, how can employers make the workplace more welcoming for women?

Some steps to take include:

  1. Acknowledge the likelihood of sexism at some point in female physicians’ careers. Simply recognizing what many women go through can do wonders for helping them feel more comfortable at your hospital.
  2. Train your employees on how to recognize sexism and sexual harassment. Most hospitals already have some form of sexual harassment training and policies, but refreshers never hurt. Use real-life examples and provide scenarios where men can learn how to intervene if another male colleague is making sexist or harassing remarks.
  3. Refine your procedure for reporting sexual harassment and sexism. If women know their complaints will be taken seriously and they won’t be punished for reporting, they’re more likely to come forward – and your facility will be able to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
  4. Consider an outside mediator. Sometimes having a person or group outside of your facility evaluate a sexual harassment situation allows for a clearer view. A neutral third-party may notice details employees haven’t and will provide valuable feedback on how to make your organization the best it can be.

Reviewing your sexual harassment policies regularly and talking to female staff members about what they’ve experienced ensures women will feel more comfortable speaking out.

Reduce burnout in general

In addition, there are several simple tactics that can help lower rates of burnout in your hospital for female and male physicians alike.

Here are some ideas to try:

  • Respect physicians’ time. When doctors aren’t at the hospital, limit communications to only the most necessary contact, and make sure programs and systems are user-friendly so physicians aren’t spending more time on administrative tasks than patient care.
  • Support doctors in meeting new performance expectations. Provide clear tools to measure physicians’ performance, reward successes and use mistakes as teachable moments rather than opportunities for punishment.
  • Cultivate a sense of community. Create a culture where providers celebrate each other’s accomplishments and share advice and ideas for how to handle a high-stress position.

Even small steps make a big difference when it comes to creating a positive work environment for all staff members, and putting the effort in can lead to reduced burnout rates and increased retention rates for female doctors, as well as better patient care – which is the ultimate goal.

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