Study shows female oncologists feel more burnout
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Study shows female oncologists feel more burnout

Ben-Gurion University researchers look at gender differences in professional exhaustion, emotional distress among clinical cancer physicians

A woman with breast cancer undergoing a CT scan, June 18, 2012. (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash90)
A woman with breast cancer undergoing a CT scan, June 18, 2012. (photo credit: Chen Leopold/Flash90)

The tough act of balancing work and home life, along with other domestic and professional challenges, may be a contributor to the higher burnout rates found among female oncologists compared to their male colleagues. And by reducing these outside stresses, oncologists may be able to cope more effectively with patient death.

A Ben-Gurion University of the Negev study set out to look at gender differences in grief reactions and burnout and emotional distress among clinical oncologists, their reactions to patient death and emotional distress.

The results, published in the journal Cancer, found that women reported significantly more grief over the death of their patients, more emotional distress and more burnout. While overall women reported more burnout, they reported emotional distress and grief responses only when they reached relatively higher levels of burnout compared to their male colleagues, who experienced these feelings even with moderate burnout.

For both men and women, however, higher levels of grief and emotional distress were felt among those who reported high levels of burnout.

Burnout is a type of psychological stress in which sufferers feel exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and ineffectiveness, and it can lead to people leaving their jobs earlier than retirement age. The condition is a big issue among oncologists and many studies have documented its prevalence, yet few have attempted to determine what is associated with the high burnout rate. Gender is an important variable to examine in this context, primary investigator Dr. Leeat Granek of BGU’s Department of Public Health said.

The researchers surveyed 178 oncologists from Israel and Canada, 100 of whom were women.

The study results indicate that the medical system should look at the cumulative stressors oncologists face on a day-to-day basis, Granek said in a statement, and take into account gender differences when helping the physicians cope with patient death and dealing with burnout.

There is accumulating evidence that some of the stressors for women in all professions derive from the struggle to balance work and home life, Granek said. Childcare and home care are unfortunately still largely the woman’s burden, so women face greater challenges balancing work and home. Nearly 200 studies have shown that when longer maternity leave is offered and workplaces have family-friendly policies, women report significantly less burnout, she said.

“This may indicate that burnout rates among men and women are not inherent or biological, but are caused by structural inequalities that affect women differently than men,” she argues.

The issue then, according to Granek, is not that women suffer more from burnout or grief reactions because they are women, but rather that they are experiencing more difficulty balancing all the other stressors in addition to patient deaths.

“Oncologists may be able to cope effectively with patient death when they are not feeling burned out by the other challenges their job poses,” she said. “Therefore, interventions need to look holistically at improving quality of life at work and in the process also improve quality of care for patients and their families.”

Granek’s previous research determined that women feel more comfortable expressing themselves about patient death than their male colleagues. She also found that male oncologists felt more comfortable opening up to women, whether their spouses or female colleagues, than to their male colleagues.

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