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News • Working environment

Women in healthcare: more stress, higher burnout rates

A new study finds women in healthcare occupations endure significantly more stress and burnout compared to their male counterparts.

The analysis by researchers at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences also found that job satisfaction and better work-life balance can protect women healthcare professionals from harmful stress. “Human beings are not equipped to handle the combined, intense pressures in healthcare in part due to the pressure to not take time to care for yourself,” Leigh A. Frame, associate director of the GW Resiliency & Well-being Center, said. 

The study, published in Global Advances in Integrative Medicine, is the first comprehensive analysis to examine the relationship between work-related stress and the well-being of women in healthcare professions, not just in the United States but worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic cast a spotlight on the issue of healthcare burnout; Frame says women are under tremendous pressure to succeed simultaneously both at home and on the job. That pressure can lead to toxic stress, occupational burnout, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts, Frame said.

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Frame and her colleagues identified and reviewed 71 studies published in 26 countries and 4 languages between 1979 and 2022. The research looked at female healthcare professionals including nurses, physicians, clinical social workers, and mental health providers. Many of the studies were conducted using evidence-based measures of well-being such as an index created by the World Health Organization. 

Key findings of the study: 

  • Gender inequality in the workplace led to added stress and burnout for female healthcare professionals. For example, Frame says women wearing scrubs in a hospital are often assumed to be a nurse even if they are the physician on call. 
  • Other factors leading to harmful stress include poor work-life integration and a lack of workplace autonomy. 
  • On the flip side, factors that protect women from stress and burnout include a supportive and flexible working environment, access to professional development, supportive relationships, and an intentional mindfulness practice. 

Frame says the healthcare workplace may amplify the stress for women in the US and around the world. She says that female healthcare workers often must work long hours, multiple shifts and still balance the on the job demands with family responsibilities such as child care, housework and other duties that often fall to women. 

The analysis also showed that compared to their male colleagues, many female healthcare professionals were assigned to patients with complex medical problems. Handling a complicated medical case takes more emotional energy and time, which ramps up stress in healthcare settings that reward speed, Frame said. 

Research shows that restorative sleep, physical activity, a healthy diet (rich in plants and fresh foods), and other health-promoting habits can help mitigate job stress. However, the problem goes beyond what individual women can do, Frame says. She says healthcare employers and policymakers need to develop solutions to help prevent burnout, a system-wide problem that leads to issues like healthcare workforce shortages, which are becoming increasingly common. 

Source: George Washington University


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