The Physician Burnout Gender Gap | Geneia

The Physician Burnout Gender Gap

September 05, 2019
Heather Lavoie, President


Female physician are more likely to experience physician burnout symptoms including lower empathy for patients.

In all of the reporting about the Physician Misery Index approaching four out of five – on a scale of one as the lowest and five as the most miserable), you may have missed an important finding:

  • Female doctors report higher levels of physician burnout than their male peers. 

Female physicians in particular, are frustrated by the challenges of practicing medicine today and expressed greater dissatisfaction than men on key measures, including likelihood of burnout, workload and compensation. Geneia’s research found:

  • A large majority of female doctors (89 percent) admit they are personally at risk for burnout compared to 76 percent of male physicians.
  • Nearly three-quarters of female physicians (73 percent) say the challenges of practicing medicine have caused them to consider a different career, compared to 62 percent of male doctors - a more than a 10-percent gender gap.

Physician burnout graphic: gender gap

  • More than 75 percent of female doctors agree with the statement, “It’s often difficult to manage the amount of work required of me,” compared to 62 percent of male physicians. 
  • Just over half (55 percent) of female doctors are satisfied with their current pay compared to nearly 70 percent of men (68 percent satisfied). Research has found there is a significant compensation gap between male and female physicians. Doximity research found on average, male doctors earn an average of $1.25 for every $1 female physicians make.
  • Female physicians were also more likely than men to have personally witnessed or experienced certain impacts in medicine that result from physician burnout, including:
  • Lower empathy for patients (72 percent)
  • Depression (57 percent)
  • Departure from practice (51 percent)

Important Differences in How Male and Female Physicians Cope with Burnout

The Medscape National Physician Burnout, Depression and Suicide Report 2019 found important differences in how physicians cope with physician burnout. Male physicians are more likely to exercise (51 percent of men versus 43 percent of women). Women are more likely to talk with family and close friends (52 percent of women versus 37 percent of men.) “Men and women are about equally unlikely to use maladaptive coping behaviors, other than eating junk food, which women are more likely to do.”

Do male and female physicians cope with burnout differently? 

Source: https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2019-lifestyle-burnout-depression-6011056#10

Research published by the National Academy of Medicine, Gender-Based Differences in Burnout: Issues Faced by Women Physicians, highlighted a number of external contributing factors, including:

  • Work-Life Integration:  “Women are more likely to perform most of the work within the home, and this leads to increased time pressures and fewer opportunities for self-care.”
  • Gender Bias and Discrimination:  “More than 70 percent of women physicians report experiencing gender discrimination.”
  • Sexual Harassment:  “Women physicians who have been victims of sexual harassment note that the experiences negatively affected their self-confidence and career advancement. Some victims even changed jobs or careers.”
  • Autonomy and Workload:  “A large survey of primary care physicians revealed that women are less likely to believe that they have sufficient time to see patients during office visits and that women report having less control over their workload and their schedules than men physicians do.”

This research also suggested possible solutions for healthcare organizations. In the section of their article, Addressing the Differential Causes and Effects of Physician Burnout by Gender: What Organizations Can Do, Kim Templeton and a team of researchers offered areas of focus, including:

  • Leadership:  “Leaders can play an important role in leveling the playing field for women at every stage of their careers by addressing disparities in opportunities, pay, and support staff and by working to eliminate gender discrimination and harassment.”
  • Work Environment, Stigma, and Access to Resources:  “Because many women clinicians experience unique pressures related to balancing personal and professional demands, organizations can foster balance by promoting gender-specific mentorship programs and implementing policies and practices intended to improve work-life integration… In addition, workplace sexual harassment and gender biases must be addressed more effectively. Effective organizational training programs designed to educate participants about unconscious bias, workplace norms, effective communication, and reporting mechanisms should be implemented.”
  • Career Development:  “Organizations can positively address the needs of women clinicians through hiring decisions, career advancement, leadership development, negotiation skills training, and mentorship programs. Intentional efforts to ensure that qualified women are placed on appropriate committees, are given the necessary administrative staff, and are supported and compensated for their work (clinical, education, and research-based) are needed to ensure that women are promoted at rates equal to those of men.”
  • Learning Environments:  “At Stanford University’s medical school, an intervention aimed at reducing gender insensitivity improved perceptions of the medical school’s learning environment.”

Vital Signs, a monthly publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society, asked female physician leaders for their ideas for preemptive measures against burnout. Their strategies are ones that physicians can take themselves and to be truly effective, likely need to be complemented by organizational actions such as leadership and career development, including:

  • Get comfortable saying no.
  • Schedule time off.
  • Self-advocate for your salary, career goals and support.
  • Address stress points in the program or process.
  • Set boundaries.

One thing I suggest to my friends and family is to get the Joy of Medicine pin, and wear it to all of your doctor visits, regardless of the gender of your physician. It is a simple way we patients can let our physicians know that we understand that the practice of medicine is often more difficult than it should be and that our good health rests on the well-being of practicing physicians.

To get a free Joy of Medicine pin, visit: https://content.geneia.com/2018/joy-of-medicine/form.html.

Show your support of restoring the Joy of Medicine to physician practice. Get the pin.

As I’ve often said, there’s more we all can – and should – do to improve physician satisfaction. For more information about solutions, see https://www.geneia.com/blog/2019/may/join-geneia-to-restore-the-joy-of-medicine.


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