The Women in Medicine Badass Radioshow

Episode #7: Why Are Women In Medicine Burning Out in Droves?

Show Notes:

Hey there WIMBAs. Welcome back to the podcast. How have you been doing? I hope you’re doing amazing, but if not – if you’ve been feeling burned out, that’s cool because that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. 

Burnout is not a new trend. It’s definitely nothing new to healthcare workers. But since COVID-19, burnout’s actually been on the rise and it hits women in medicine especially hard. So today we’re going to uncover why that is and what you can do if that’s you. 

Now before we jump in, let’s all get on the same wavelength. I know there’s a lot of talk about burnout, but too often I find that people don’t necessarily know how to define it or understand what it looks and feels like.

You know what stress feels like. It’s when you have high blood pressure, your muscles are tense, your jaw is clenched, and your body hurts. It’s also when you feel exhausted or have trouble sleeping. You’re more likely to have shallow breathing when you’re stressed out, develop headaches, dizziness, or shaking. You might even develop stomach or digestive problems. Not to mention the cognitive and emotional signs of stress. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to think in a loop about things that are going on. You are also really likely to have a lot of negative self-talk . It’s when you put a ton of pressure on yourself to do things perfectly or when you expect yourself to get 12 things done in 30 minutes. It can start to feel really overwhelming. 

Now imagine that this was your life, that this stress was chronic. Every day you’d wake up with a million things on your to do list and therefore on your mind. It would always feel like there isn’t enough time. You’ll always be rushing, pushing, and feeling like you’re drowning no matter how much you put in. 

That, my friends, is burnout in the making. 

So by definition, burnout is chronic stress accumulated over time. 

Now let’s bring this back to women in medicine. Not only is your career challenging, but you likely have people in your personal life you have to take care of. So when you’re done with work, if you are a parent, you don’t get a break, especially if your kids are learning from home or are sick or have special needs. The list goes on and on.

What are some other risk factors for women in medicine getting burned out?

How about the discrimination you face at work where you are less likely than your male colleagues to get promoted or get recognized? In your career, you might find it more challenging to find mentors. As a woman, you are statistically more likely to get paid less than men but have more caregiver responsibilities. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you will have more stress and anxiety in your job no matter how long you’ve been there and how good you are in it, even when others praise you for your work. 

As a result of all this, not only do you suffer, but your work and your relationships suffer. When you’re burned out, your patients will get poorer care and therefore feel less satisfied. They won’t trust you as much, their medication adherence will go down. You might face more malpractice, readmissions, and diagnostic errors. If you work in a setting where others around you are burning out, you might have to deal with staff turnover, which is demoralizing. I’ve been there. It’s not pretty. 

The healthcare industry is ripe with challenges. As a woman in medicine, your work days will be packed. You will face time pressures and the work itself is often emotionally intense and can feel draining or overwhelming. You likely have a high volume of patients to see, paperwork to complete, not to mention having to manage your patients’ stress and unrealistic expectations.

So what should you be looking out for to know if you’re on your way to burnout? Three main markers: Emotional exhaustion. That’s when you feel like you are in a mental fog. You can’t focus or concentrate, which is why your work takes longer and your performance is suffering. An attitude of cynicism sometimes develops when you just feel like you can’t do this anymore. Many of the women in medicine that reach out to me for coaching come for this exact reason. They believe they have to change careers because they can’t see how on earth they could stay in the game. And because they really love the work they do, this is heartbreaking for most. And that’s why burnout coaching is such a passion of mine. I truly believe that most people can continue to stay in their career if it is something they love once they figure out their mindset and habits. And lastly, if you see that over time you are accomplishing less, you will lose your confidence in your ability to perform and get stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle. 

To recap, you’re looking to see if you’re mentally exhausted, feeling cynical, and have lost your confidence in your ability to do your work or are just plain seeing that you’re accomplishing less.

In addition to these, here are some more tangible ways to identify burnout in yourself:

If you’re feeling tired and drained most of the time and if even when you get adequate rest you still feel tired, that’s one sign. Often, people tell me they need a 4-day weekend just to get back to baseline. As we know, stress lowers your immune system, so if you’re feeling sick a lot, that’s a sign that you’re burning out. If you get frequent headaches, have chronic back pain or have muscle aches, that’s a physical manifestation of stress. And just like we see in depression, if there is a change in your appetite or sleep, that could be a sign that you’re experiencing burnout. 

You might be curious about how others in your specialty are doing. This is also a good way to gauge how likely burnout is in your area of specialization. So I looked up which medical specialties have the highest burnout rates. Here they are: 

  • Critical Care
  • Neurology
  • Family medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Internal Medicine
  • and Emergency Medicine. 

These range from 45-48% burnout rates. So nearly 1 in every 2 physicians in these areas are burning out. This is only slightly higher than the roughly 40% statistic for all docs and nurses. That means that either you are burning out, have burned out in the past, or know other people who are burning out. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it were all of the above.  

Since the start of COVID, many of you actually had to step up your game because the profession needed you more. And when I say that, what I mean is – the profession needed more of you. When you are already giving so much of yourself to your work, your patients, and your families, giving more is not easy. It means something else has to go and too often that’s your self-care. 

Not only that, but if you are a front-line worker, you were more exposed to COVID. You may have even contracted it yourself. All this increases the stress you were already experiencing. And to put the icing on the cake, many medical professionals either lost their job or experienced a reduction in pay or hours. You had to navigate brand new ways of doing business if you were in private practice. And all that on top of the unknowns brought on by this virus. 

So what are the effects of this chronic stress?

Many women in medicine love what they do, but too often, their career takes up so much of their time that they have less time to spend on their loved ones. And when they are around their families, they might be so exhausted that it makes it hard to be present. 

That might explain why 40 percent of female physicians end up leaving or cutting back their hours by their sixth year5. A similar trend can be seen with female nurses whose turnover rates are purported to be as high as 38 percent6. Just when you thought that working less was the answer to your stress problems, it comes with its own set of issues. Specifically, working less can create more stress related to paying back student loans and other financial debt.

And if that’s you, how are you coping with the stress?

Some women in medicine turn to junk food or overindulge in drugs or alcohol. When this translates into weight gain, poorer health, and addictions, you find that sleep, mood, and relationships are all negatively affected. There’s gotta be a better way. Stay with me here. 

Everything I just listed off points to external stressors. They are the culprit. That said, it is up to you to learn to manage your thinking to avoid feeling stressed, to avoid becoming anxious, overwhelmed or burned out. That’s because negative emotions are a product of your thinking. 

Let’s look at an example.Think of a time when you were in the same situation as someone else. While you may have been negatively affected by the circumstances at the time, your friend or colleague was unphased. The reason for this difference in outcomes relates to perception. It is not what happens to us that makes us feel how we do—it is how we think about what happens to us that leads to those feelings. 

When we misunderstand someone’s intention, we can feel upset by our interpretation. Once we realize what they truly meant, our perception shifts and consequently, so do our feelings. The same is true in the workplace. It is your thinking that creates your current emotional state, not the circumstances. When you shift your mindset, you shift your anxiety into a state of calm. 

So the next time you find yourself ruminating about mistakes you’ve made or worrying about what the future will bare, bring yourself back to the present moment. Recognize you have a choice about where you focus your mind. 

The world around you will remain imperfect. The healthcare system in which you work wiill continue to be deeply flawed. When you fixate on what should be different, you’ll only feel frustrated. Instead, focus inward on what you can control. And the only thing you have control over is yourself. 

By learning to manage your thinking, you can shift out of a negative state, adapt to change rather than remain stuck in how things were before, and trust yourself to make the best of the situation while engaging in self-care.

The responsibility of self-management and self-care may seem like an added burden to your already burdened life, but by increasing Emotional Intelligence and managing your energy, you lighten your load. What may have seemed overwhelming previously may feel easier when your perspective shifts, when you are in a state of balance, and when you are able to accept aspects that exist outside your control. You are stronger than you realize and no matter what, remember—you always have a choice. 

Remember one thing – you have to focus internally and when you do, you will regain control over your reactions and refocus on what really matters long-term. 

Your task this week is anytime you feel stressed, to identify the thoughts you have about your circumstance that creates that feeling of stress. Take a long hard look at that thought and ask yourself how else you might be able to look at that situation that feels at least more neutral. That’s your challenge. Share with me what you come up with. I can’t wait to hear all about your discoveries. Have a fabulous week, everyone and I’ll talk to you again next week. Take care.

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