The silent pandemic: Why burnout disproportionately affects women

We hear the same stats all the time. Burnout. Alcoholism. Suicide. Divorce. When compared to the rest of the population, physicians are basically twice as prone to everything undesirable. And while medicine is strenuous regardless of gender, female physicians leave medicine at higher rates, largely because how we practice medicine was created by and for men (with stay-at-home wives). 

But when I was on the verge of burning everything to the ground to have a sense of self, peace, and freedom back, I didn’t need another article telling me the numbers. I needed tangible solutions to get me out of the deep, dark canyon of burnout.

So excuse me if this article isn’t spewing facts and figures. It’s not because the research is unimportant. Actually, it’s the opposite. There is so much research on why women physicians suffer from burnout at a higher rate than their male counterpoints. You can read plenty of pieces about female physicians quitting full-time medicine in droves because of poor work-life balance, harassment, wage gaps, and outdated maternity policies. 

I want to go a step further here. What the hell do we do with all of this information? 

Calling for change

When 40% of women quit or go part-time within 6 years, it isn’t an individual problem. Some policies and attitudes permeate medicine and make it difficult, if not impossible, to build a healthy, meaningful life as a female physician. 

Like many other women, I didn’t want to quit full-time medicine. Which is to say, I didn’t push myself through undergrad, medical school, residency, and licensure just for kicks. I loved medicine, and I longed to practice it – and I still do. Medicine was, and in some capacity, still is, my calling. 

But I’m not willing to practice at the expense of my own health and wellbeing or the health and wellbeing of those I love. I’m not willing to emotionally bleed out for a profession that refuses to create systems that support and uplift its most vital component. Without health care workers, there is no health care. Let that sink in.  

We don’t need another article to tell us this is a problem. And we don’t need empty promises for a better work environment and platitudes about burnout being “multi-faceted.” We need real change, and we need it now. 

Tangible takeaways

So what does that look like? The first step is to recognize that there are alternatives. Medicine does not have to continue to be practiced in the current method. Patients can still receive high-quality care if we ditch the RVU based, pay for performance, hustle based system. In fact, they’ll likely get better care because physicians are practicing from a place of wholeness based on their values rather than burned out, stressed out zombies. 

Allow for flexible schedule changes

Part of the reason that I know a better system exists is that I intentionally found a great organization to work to understand my values. Last year, I told them I needed to lighten my schedule to focus on my children’s ever-changing school schedule and my thriving coaching business. They might have shamed me in a different hospital or made me feel as if I wasn’t welcomed back. But this organization said, “Absolutely. How can we help?”  

Many of my clients are scared beyond belief to ask for even a half-day for fear of retribution. The thought tornado of “My colleagues/co-workers/boss will think I’m lazy/weak/inadequate” are very real because of the amount of shame, backbiting, and toxic work-life culture that permeates so many spaces.

Burnout is a very real problem that is costing employers money. So instead of treating it like a frivolous complaint and trying to band-aid it with gauze…how about we actually treat doctors like human beings? We need rest. We deserve rest. And it’s not too much to ask for. 

Remove obstacles to re-entry

It’s time to normalize and encourage sabbaticals for physicians and create clear paths to re-entry. Physicians fear that we’ll never have the opportunity to put our white coat back on if we choose to hang it up. This puts us in a position where we’re clutching onto a hot coal for dear life – and letting it burn us – because we think that we’ll never find warmth anywhere else. 

But just because a career path is “nontraditional” doesn’t mean it has less value. And while certain precautions are necessary to verify training/capability, many of the hoops we’re forced to jump through are not. Taking time off does not make anyone less of a physician. Pursuing a new career path and then coming back to medicine can actually broaden perspectives and reinvigorate your love for the field. 

Aim for equity, not just equality

This is where it gets nuanced. Let’s start with a basic premise: everyone is different. We have different goals, different preferences, and different things that make us happy. 

These differences are strengths, and we already see their benefits in the health care field. We specialize because it allows us to explore what most interests and intrigues us. But what happens when the lifestyle associated with our interests stops being a good fit? 

This is where equity steps in. Rather than having one-size-fits-all policies about what can or cannot happen, we need flexible options that adapt to specific situations. I’m not calling for anarchy – I’m just tired of seeing good doctors leave their fields because they couldn’t figure out a childcare situation that worked for them.  

Finding community

Now is the time to lean into relationships. Administrators, managers, and at times, even our own families will not understand what we’re going through. We need to make connections with people who accept us, support us, and want to see us find fulfillment.

This may be a physician-only space, or it could be a hobby group. It doesn’t matter as long as you surround yourself with people who let you explore the options judgment-free. Stop going it alone and reach out to others who feel the same way you do. Because I promise some people feel like you do. Together, we can create better, more human work lives for all of us. 

Errin Weisman is a family physician and the creator, Doctor Me First Podcast.

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