women in medicine burnour
Stresses related to the pandemic are being added to the already stressful life of female physicians.This places them at risk of burnout. (Photo source: iStock)

Women in medicine are at risk of physician burnout due to COVID-19 due to many different factors, including:

  • The fear of catching the potentially lethal disease
  • Worry about having their health compromised now and into the future
  • Wondering if they will spread COVID to their loved ones 
  • Worrying about how to manage their household and children in face of school closures and the need to stay away from their usual sources of support (parents, grandparents)

Further, they must continue to deal with all of the job-related stress that existed before the pandemic, including: 

  • The pressure of seeing a high volume of patients
  • Managing the emotional reactions of their stressed-out patients
  • Charting and paperwork after each patient visit
  • Dealing with unrealistic expectations of patients and their families
  • Worrying about their patients long into the night
  • Working long shifts that often cut into their sleep and personal time
  • Lack of support
  • Facing gender discrimination [1] and sexual harassment on the job [2]

No wonder women in medicine are feeling overwhelmed and are at risk of burnout.

COVID-19 is driving big changes in our lives

Since the onset of COVID-19, people worldwide have had to learn to adapt to change quickly. The problem with this, however, is that our brain doesn’t like change. It likes to predict the future and when we face change, this means one thing: uncertainty. 

The pandemic has turned the world as we knew it upside-down. Things we previously took for granted, like getting together with friends or going to work, became risky.

In addition to dealing with the possibility of contracting COVID through everyday activities, medical professionals are also at increased risk of contracting the virus through the treatment of their sick patients. 

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While they are needed now more than ever, medical professionals are losing their jobs and experiencing a reduction in pay and hours. Those who have not yet been affected are worried about the future of their career and financial stability. 

Because most schools in the United States have switched over to a digital format, much of childcare and homeschooling have fallen on parents. Traditionally, women have been the primary ones to handle work within the home [3]. Therefore, it is not a far stretch to imagine that they are also the ones who are taking on most of these domestic tasks now.  

Women in medicine feel like they are in survival mode

While these women might be high achievers, many say they are working hard for their families. The trouble is their career takes up so much of their time that they have less time to spend with their loved ones. Even when they have the time, they often experience emotional exhaustion, [4] that may keep them from being fully present. 

Perhaps, that is why 40 percent of female physicians end up leaving or cutting back their hours by their sixth year [5]. A similar trend can be seen with female nurses whose turnover rates are purported to be as high as 38 percent [6]. However, working less can bring up additional stress related to paying back student loans and other financial debt.

For all these reasons, being a woman in medicine now more than ever can feel like being in survival mode. Indeed, when demands are excessive and resources are short, this is a recipe for burnout [7].

As it turns out, 42 percent of physicians reported being burned out according to a recent online survey [8]. A similar trend can be seen with nurses who normally experience emotional pressures in their jobs which, during a pandemic, can lead to stress and burnout [9]. 

Burnout impacts the performance of women in medicine

When these professionals are not at their best, they suffer a decrease in energy, morale, and job performance. And, the quality of their medical care goes down.

The effect of this trickles down to patients who receive poorer quality care. And they may suffer higher rates of infections and increased mortality rates due to medical errors [10].

Some women in medicine may turn to junk food or overindulge in drugs or alcohol to cope with stress. Such maladaptive coping translates into weight gain, poorer health, and addictions. All of these things have further consequences that negatively affect sleep, mood, and relationships. 

While the external stressors they face are real, it is up to the individual to learn to manage their thinking to avoid feeling anxious, overwhelmed or burned out.  This is possible even during COVID-19.

The response to stress is a product of the mind

In addition to environmental stressors, part of the reason why anxiety and burnout are an epidemic among healthcare workers is because of the stigma around mental health in the field of medicine.

There is an expectation that healthcare providers are superhuman. And, that they can manage to deal with emotionally draining and sometimes traumatic experiences while navigating challenging work-related conditions without being affected. This is clearly unrealistic and very damaging to their long-term well-being.

Nevertheless, not all hope is lost. The key to staying afloat amid the chaos is self-management. It may seem that the reasons for the stress are external factors and therefore beyond your control. However, our response to stress is a product of our minds. 

Think of a time when you were in the same situation as someone else. While you may have been negatively affected by the circumstances at the time, your friend or colleague was unphased.  

The reason for this difference in outcomes relates to perception. It is not what happens to us that makes us feel how we do. Rather, it is how we think about what happens to us that leads to those feelings. 

When we misunderstand someone’s intention, we can feel upset by our interpretation. Once we realize what they truly meant, our perception shifts. Consequently, so do our feelings.

The same is true in the workplace. It is your thinking that creates your current emotional state, not the circumstances. When you shift your mindset, you shift your anxiety into a state of calm. 

You have a choice where you focus your mind

The next time you find yourself ruminating about mistakes you’ve made or worrying about the future, bring yourself back to the present moment. Recognize that you have a choice about where you focus your mind. 

The world around you will remain imperfect. The healthcare system in which you work will continue to be deeply flawed.

When you fixate on what should be different, you’ll only feel frustrated. Instead, focus inward on what you can control. This is because the only thing you have control over is yourself. 

By learning to manage your thinking, you can make positive changes, such as:

  • shifting out of a negative state
  • adapting to change rather than remaining stuck in how things were before
  • trusting yourself to make the best of the situation while engaging in self-care

The responsibility of self-management and self-care may seem like an added burden to your already burdened life.  However, by increasing Emotional Intelligence and managing your energy, you lighten your load.

What may have seemed overwhelming previously may feel easier when your perspective shifts, when you are in a state of balance, and when you are able to accept aspects that exist outside your control.

You are stronger than you realize and no matter what, remember—you always have a choice. 

The bottom line on women in medicine during COVID

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women in medicine have been faced with heightened demands and lower than normal resources. This combination can overwhelm and bring about anxiety and burnout.

By focusing internally rather than externally, you can regain control over your reactions and refocus on what really matters long-term. 

References

  1. Jagsi, R., K. A. Griffith, R. Jones, C. R. Perumalswami, P. Ubel, and A. Stewart. 2016. Sexual harassment and discrimination experiences of academic medical faculty. Journal of the American Medical Association 315(19):2120-2121.
  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Sexual harassment of women: Climate, culture, and consequences in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24994.
  3. Jolly, S., K. A. Griffith, R. DeCastro, A. Stewart, P. Ubel, and R. Jagsi. 2014. Gender differences in time spent on parenting and domestic responsibilities by high-achieving young physician-researchers. Annals of Internal Medicine 160(5):344-353.
  4. Purvanova, R. K., and J. P. Muros. 2010. Gender differences in burnout: A meta-analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior 77(2):168-185.
  5. Elena Frank et al, Gender Disparities in Work and Parental Status Among Early Career Physicians, JAMA Network Open (2019). DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.8340
  6. Gandi JC, Wai PS, Karick H, Dagona ZK. The role of stress and level of burnout in job performance among nurses. Ment Health Fam Med. 2011 Sep;8(3):181-94.
  7. Arnold B. Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti, “The Job Demands- Resources Model: State of the Art,” Journal of Managerial Psychology 22, no. 3 (2007): 309-328, https:// pdfs.semanticscholar.org/535b/ dddb991b5ebe252e4030fd4c02c2368e9f14.pdf.
  8. Kane, L. 2020. Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2020: The Generational Divide. Retrieved on August 13, 2020 from https:// www.medscape.com/slideshow/2020-lifestyle-burnout-6012460?faf=1#29
  9. Maunder RG, et al. Long-term psychological and occupational effects of providing hospital healthcare during SARS outbreak. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006;12:1924. doi: 10.3201/ eid1212.060584.
  10. Dyrbye LN, Shanafelt TD, Johnson PO, Johnson LA, Satele D, West CP. A cross-sectional study exploring the relationship between burnout, absenteeism, and job performance among American nurses. BMC Nurs. 2019;18:57. doi: 10.1186/s12912-019-0382-7.
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Sharon Grossman, Ph.D. is the author of the international best-selling book, The 7E Solution to Burnout: Transforming High Achievers from Exhausted to Extraordinary, which draws on two decades of experience as a psychologist and serves as a guide for high achievers to explore their inner journey to feel empowered.

  

She has been a Success Coach at her San Francisco Bay Area company, Coaching By Sharon, since 2015. She specializes in working with lawyers, medical doctors, and other professionals in high-pressure careers.

Her focus is on helping her clients manage their stress to avoid burnout, manage their time, and find better work-life integration. This helps her clients acquire the skills they need to attain success and increase their happiness.

Dr. Grossman coaches women in medicine worldwide who are struggling with anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and burned out. She works with them to stay calm, even in seemingly scary situations, to effectively manage the demands on their time, and quickly bounce back from adversity.

 

Dr. Grossman has an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Fordham Univesity as well as an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College (CUNY).

When she’s not working, Dr. Grossman enjoys playing tennis, swimming, and playing with her two children. 

Join Dr. Sharon’s private Facebook group: Transforming Anxiety for Medical Employees at https://www.facebook.com/groups/medicalanxiety

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