4 Strategies To Reduce The Stress Burden For Women In Medicine

Written by on July 1, 2016 in Features - No comments

Medicine is stressful business. From long hours, caring for the sick, productivity requirements, and administration pressures, the weight is heavy on all physicians.

Women in medicine navigate additional stressors in order to maintain a successful career, some of which are more implicit than others. In addition to the high work demands required of all doctors, the stress burden of female physicians is increased by the following challenges that require extra energy and attention:

Advocate For Equal Pay.  Medicine is no exception to the gender wage gap, even within the same specialty. Researchers from Duke University and the University of Michigan Health System found that among 800 physicians who received an early career research grant, women earned an average of $12,194 less than men a year, even when all other variables were identical.1

Not Being Received as an Authority by Staff and Patients. Even though women make up 1/3 of all practicing physicians in the United States, women still report that patients and medical staff frequently look to the male figure over the female physician as the authority, even when the male figure is a subordinate. Women use extra energy to fight for their well-earned right to be heard, responded to, and respected.

Lack of Dedicated Support at Home, With or Without Children: With work demands high for all physicians, it can be helpful to have a supportive partner to take care of domestic responsibilities. Over double as many female physicians are single (14%) compared to their male peers (5.62%). Regardless of being single or married, male doctors are more likely to live with a partner (89%) than female doctors (76%).2  In my coaching practice of women seeking relief from chronic stress, all my female physician clients are either single or married to another physician. In these two scenarios – whether out of necessity, mutual agreement, or imposed by self or society – women take on the responsibility for managing domestic issues.

Navigate Maternity Leave, Breastfeeding, and Childcare: If a female physician desires a family, work-life gets more complicated. Women in medicine must balance patient care with their care to meet the nutritional needs of pregnancy and milk production, but time to eat is unfortunately a luxury in many medical settings. If a designated lactation room is not available, a nursing physician must work to secure a space with an already full schedule. Most women assume the responsibility for coordinating childcare, which takes further time and energetic resources to manage. These issues are not solely women’s issues, but humanitarian issues that need to be addressed with welcoming arms to honor the importance of proper human development. Medicine can get on board with that, right?

For over a decade, almost 50% of graduating medical students have been female. The medical establishment must open up, listen, embrace, and take action to enthusiastically attract and retain quality female physicians. In doing so, not only do you increase the job satisfaction for women in medicine, but you also create positive workplace dynamics and better patient care. The whole healthcare ecosystem benefits.

To make this vision a reality, here are 4 strategies that medicine – both as a community and as individuals – can do to reduce the stress burden for women in medicine:

1. Don’t Operate Your Women’s Leadership Initiative in a Silo. Kudos for organizing and having a women’s leadership initiative or mentor program within your organization. These initiatives provide a needed and safer environment for women to share, learn, and collaborate with issues specific to women in medicine.

However, don’t just stick to yourselves. Your women’s leadership initiative needs to involve your male counterparts to encourage understanding, dialog, and advocacy. Most leadership positions remain held by men, and you need to include them in the dialog and exchange so everyone’s needs are equally appreciated, understood, and championed.

2. Stop Accommodating a Culture of Judgment, Both Within Yourself and in the Workplace. One of the biggest stressors my female physician clients report is the pressure to do it all and do it all well. After working so hard to get where you are, who wants to let a ball drop or be perceived as the one dropping the ball?

The internal pressure to keep everything perfectly held together is partially self-imposed, partially imposed by societal expectations, and partially imposed by a work culture that does not tolerate the necessary human need to yield to exhaustion. In a profession where ‘eat what you kill’ and ‘I suffered through it so you can too’ mentalities are commonplace, it is time to replace the harsh self-judgments with mindful self-compassion. By learning to value your worth because of your innate being instead of your accomplishments or how long you can plow through, physicians can learn to drop the unnecessary armor and be free to be human. By honoring and accepting your own needs for rest, nourishment, intimacy, and play, you give others permission to do the same. Doing so is not lazy or indulgent. It’s necessary for your well being, and I promise you will still get your work done.

3. Balance Masculine and Feminine Leadership Styles. What role does leadership play in reducing the stress burden? A big one.

Medicine doesn’t offer much flexibility to have a life outside of work.

Yes, it’s true that women seek work-life balance options like part-time, flex-time, and job sharing, but men – especially millennials and GenX men – want a life too. While men hold most leadership roles in medicine, they are also held by older men, where a generational gap may be more broad than a gender gap as younger male physicians want to be available for their families and leisure pursuits.

As younger physicians of both sexes grow in numbers, it is important for leadership styles to adapt. An overly masculinized authoritative ‘do as I say’ dictating leadership style won’t motivate or retain female or male physicians who seek a balanced lifestyle. While it would be great to have more women in leadership, the key is to have a flexible blend of feminine and masculine leadership qualities embodied in each leader, regardless of gender. Current women leaders in the system may have an overly masculinized leadership style formed by the necessity to ‘get ahead in a man’s world.’ But times are changing, and physicians are hungry for a true feminine, collaborative leadership style that genuinely listens, cares, and responds with meaningful action.

4. Keep Saying No. This strategy is huge. Many women in medicine have learned the art of setting boundaries and saying no. It is not comfortable at first, but with continued practice, it gets easier as you experience the benefits of doing less and not tolerating the dysfunction of a fragmented system. Saying no can even help your career, as many earn respect from their managers and peers by drawing a line in the sand (although this is not always the case).

Physicians rightfully carry the responsibility of patients’ lives in their hands, but administration has an equal ethical responsibility to support the health of the physicians that provide care. There is no healthcare without you, and as more women in medicine speak up for their needs and desires, the more normalized expecting and receiving a decent work-life balance can become.

Change always happens from an unpopular minority, so take heart. Do the inner work required to make outer changes, and you will shift the paradigm of what it means to be a woman in medicine.

About the Author:
Angela Savitri, OTR/L, is a Chronic Stress Coach who helps professional women be free of burnout and chronic stress. She guides women to experience an unburdened and content life, even with a demanding career, through her signature 5-Step Freedom From Chronic Stress Program. Learn more at

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