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Women Physicians May Be at Higher Risk of Burnout


Women physicians may be at higher risk of burnout, but they may have better coping tools, according to researchers.

Some research indicates that women physicians are more likely to suffer from burnout than their male colleagues. One oft-cited study found women’s risk of burnout was a whopping sixty percent greater.   Other studies clearly show that female physicians are at greater risk of depression than are male physicians, and certainly burnout is a common driver of depression. In addition, according to a survey of women physicians conducted by Katherine Gold, MD, family physician and mental health researcher at the University of Michigan , women doctors are particularly concerned about the consequences of reaching out for help.

More than 50 percent of Gold’s respondents said that they met the criteria for mental illness, but had not sought treatment because of the stigma and the fear of being reported to a licensing board. "According to my research, women exhibit higher levels of stress," says Gold.

Holding Down Two Jobs
Women may have a tougher time dealing with pressures of medical practice because of additional pressures outside of work. “Even when their spouses are physicians, too, women in medicine tend to have more on their plates,” says Michael Myers, professor of clinical psychiatry at SUNY-Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, and specialist in physician health. “Women are still more likely to hold the executive authority at home, even if a male spouse picks up the kids from school and helps with the housework" 

On top of that, women may actually do more work in the office than a typical male physician might - or at least a different sort of work. “Primary care, a common specialty for women, has fewer templates than other specialties to make documentation quicker,” says Gold. This means that more women are likely to be sitting up late at home keying notes. “Medical staff also treat women physicians differently,” Gold adds, “for example, staff are more likely to call a woman doctor when she’s on vacation, and women are more likely to get resistance when they try to delegate duties.”

Coping Skills
On the other hand, women may have better skills at coping with burnout, experts say. “Women physicians are extremely private about mental health issues, but at the same time are more likely to be open with a close friend or a spouse,” says Myers. They are also more likely to see medicine as a team endeavor. “One of the things my research suggests,” says Gold, “is that women need more informal support and interaction - such as talking through issues with colleagues.”

Gold does caution, however, that a great deal of the burnout problem is due to the culture of medicine. “Much of the guidance related to burnout focuses on personal wellness and that’s good, but we have to push back against the idea that we just need to do more yoga. Hospitals and health care administrators need to address the systemic problem, as well as being very vocal about getting states to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, so that physicians, women and men, can feel secure in reaching out for help,” she says.

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