New Zealand doctors’ union research on the effect of burnout on female doctors


Three weeks ago we reported on a New England Journal of Medicine review of research looking at physician burnout.

Burnout is a common problem in contemporary workplaces. And according to an organisational psychologist Dr Sarah Cotton many people don’t pick up on the warning signs of burnout before reaching crisis point. Typically, burnout is accompanied by three things: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced productivity.

Dr Cotton has identified the key pain points that can lead to burnout. This includes unsustainable workload, mission exposure risk or suffering vicarious trauma from working with people in crisis, a passive-aggressive workplace culture and poor work-life culture.

More recent research carried out by Dr Charlotte Chambers, Principal Analyst at the New Zealand Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS), has revealed that female doctors and other medical professionals in New Zealand are facing major issues in the workplace including significant work/life conflict, gender bias, bullying and burnout.

The Union argues for a need for both attitudinal and structural change to encourage more women to participate in the specialist workforce.

This research was prompted by the results from a 2016 ASMS study into burnout, which found that over 70% of women in their 30s were likely to be suffering from very high levels of burnout.

Dr Chambers said that unless the issue is addressed, the country's shortage of doctors will get worse as more women avoid the industry. She also said that female doctors are at risk of burnout because medicine is based on ideals of unencumbered workers who can immerse themselves in medicine at the expense of all else.

“They’ve just finished long and gruelling medical training and at the same time, they have difficult decisions to make about whether or not to have children. But what really struck me from the interviews were the repeated stories of having to take their work home to get it done. For women who have families or want to have a sense of work-life balance, this presents real challenges,” Dr Chambers says.

Dr Chambers says while the pressures are most acute on women, younger male specialists also have different family responsibilities and attitudes to those of older generations.