(photo credit: BEN GURION UNIVERSITY OF THE NEGEV)
Women cancer specialists suffer from more burnout and emotional stress than their male counterparts when their patients die, according to a new study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
This is not because they are “softer” or more emotional, but because they tend to be overwhelmed by their double duty as professionals and wives and mothers, according to a study just published in the prestigious journal Cancer.
Burnout is a big issue among oncologists, and many studies have documented its prevalence, but few have tried to find out what is associated with the high burnout rate.
Gender is an important variable to examine in this context, suggested primary investigator and public health expert Dr. Leeat Granek.
Her previous research found 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.
These findings led to the current study and the associations between gender differences, reactions to patient death, emotional distress and burnout.
The researchers interviewed 178 oncologists from Israel (52 of whom were women) and Canada (48 of whom were women). Granek said it was important to look at the cumulative stressors oncologists face on a daily basis.
“Oncologists may be able to cope effectively with patient death when they are not feeling burned out by the other challenges their job poses.
Therefore, interventions need to look holistically at improving the quality of life at work and in the process also improve quality of care for patients and their families,” she wrote.
Granek and her colleagues cited a meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies that showed that when longer maternity leave is offered and places have family friendly policies, women report significantly less burnout.
“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.
Thus the issue is not that women suffer more from burnout or grief reactions because they are women, but it may be that they are experiencing more difficulty balancing all the other stressors in addition to patient deaths.
Gender-sensitive interventions for coping with patient death and dealing with burnout are crucial, Granek concluded.
“There is accumulating evidence that some of the stressors for women in all professions derive from the struggle to balance work and home life. Childcare and home care are unfortunately still largely the woman’s burden, Granek noted, so women face greater challenges balancing work and home.