Career Burnout: A Growing Problem for Female Physicians

Sep 12, 2018

The risks, consequences, and how to battle burnout

For the next several months, our feature stories will focus on career burnout in the medical field. We’ll be reviewing the available data, and most importantly, talking to real women in medicine. 

Career burnout is becoming a growing problem for physicians, and female practitioners in particular.

As Dr. Ellen Gritz and Warren Holleman discussed in an article on Biomedical Burnout for Nature, “Studies suggest that burnout among medical doctors has reached epidemic proportions around the world, accompanied by alarmingly high levels of clinical depression, suicidal thoughts, job dissatisfaction and unhappiness with work–life balance.”

And there are alarming statistics to back it up.

About a quarter of young doctors suffer from depression, more than half experience burnout, and more than 10% may have thoughts of suicide. As many as one in 16 surgeons reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous year.

When it comes to committing suicide, male doctors are 1-4 times more likely and female doctors 2-3 times more likely to do so than other men/women.

Looking at a specific specialty, 45% of oncologists experience emotional exhaustion or other symptoms of burnout.

While doctors are more prone to mental health problems than any other profession, many of these physicians aren’t seeking professional help for fear of losing their medical licenses if they report mental stress. In fact, a poll published by the Royal College of Physicians found that only one in five doctors would seek advice from colleagues or other health professionals if they developed a mental illness.

Why Female Physicians are at Risk

Female physicians may be more at risk for career burnout than their male counterparts due to a greater total workload.

A study in Nature found that women are more likely than men to find that work interferes with their home life, that women typically have more home responsibilities, and that they therefore have a greater total workload than men. Consequently, women are more likely to burn out.

A JAMA study supports this, finding that more female surgeons experienced burnout and had depressive symptoms than their male colleagues, citing work-home conflict as an independent factor associated with burnout.

Table from JAMA study

Separately, Katherine Gold, MD, a family physician and mental health researcher at the University of Michigan, conducted a survey of women physicians and found that more than 50% of respondents said they met criteria for mental illness. “According to my research, women exhibit higher levels of stress.”

The Consequences

So doctors are strained; the profession is known to be a difficult one. Does burnout have a larger impact or only a personal one?

The answer is both. As Liselotte Dyrbye, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, explains:

“There is a big public health impact. Some 30–40% of health-care providers already have stress, and the increased regulatory requirements [of health-care reform] could cause more physicians to leave practice, causing workforce implications and increased dissatisfaction among patients.”

Beyond dissatisfaction and a shortage of doctors, additional consequences include negative effects on physician self-care and safety, professionalism, patient care, and the viability of overall healthcare systems.

With doctors at the center of healthcare, burnout at these rates results in all of us getting burned.

Battling Burnout

So what can organizations and hospitals do to help their physicians battle burnout, and what can individual physicians do for themselves?

The Lancet found that “both individual-focused and structural or organisational strategies can result in clinically meaningful reductions in burnout among physicians;” however, further research is needed to establish which methods are the most effective. 

Fortunately, certain institutions are taking charge. Weber State University in Ogden, Utah has instituted a course called “Life in Medicine” in which prospective medical students discuss the realities of a profession that deals with life and death on a daily basis, hearing directly from doctors and speaking candidly about suicide, ethical considerations, and more.

On a more personal level, taking breaks to participate in hobbies and activities is key to fighting burnout. More evenly sharing home-based responsibilities can make a huge difference as well, especially for female physicians.

Women also have the opportunity to help each other; take time to check in with friends and colleagues, as well as those rising in the field. The subject of burnout should not be seen as incapability, but rather as a real problem that many doctors face. It gives us an opportunity to share experiences, both good and bad, so that we can learn moving forward.


We look forward to sharing some of these stories and encourage you to reach out if you have an opinion on career burnout in medicine or related topics, such as specialization selection, work/life balance, career development, or mentoring.