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Medicine and Motherhood: The Reality of Juggling Work and Home Life as a Physician Mom
Being a mother and a physician has never been a walk in the “balanced life” park. It’s more like an all-out sprint. And today – despite the fact that women make up a greater-than-ever portion of the overall physician category – they run it while carrying weight their male counterparts don’t.
Like all parents, physician parents face challenges when managing their personal and professional lives, but there are important discrepancies in how these challenges impact male versus female physicians that must be addressed. Here’s one example: while research has shown that being married and having children significantly benefits male physicians and their careers, the same does not apply to female physicians.
Integrating their two worlds can be extremely taxing for physician moms, and even when done so successfully, they often face negative impacts toward their professional development. Physician moms are likelier than physician dads to turn down a project, not join an institutional committee, and pass on scholarship and leadership opportunities.
In a world that has come a long way and made great strides toward equality for men and women in the medical field, why is this the case?
Physician Moms Take on Majority of Household Responsibilities
According to a study published by JAMA, physicians who are mothers take on the majority of the household workload. The unequal distribution of those responsibilities may contribute to many female physicians' job dissatisfaction. In fact, among the physician mothers surveyed that reported being primarily responsible for five or more domestic tasks – childcare plans, cooking, grocery shopping, laundry – 55% said they have thought about changing careers.
The study found that female physicians reported bearing the most responsibility for the day-to-day functioning of the family. In contrast, most male physicians reported relying on their female partners to carry out the primary parenting role. The women surveyed reported feeling guilty about their performance as mothers and doctors, often describing it as impossible to meet their personal standards as a professional and as a parent.
On the other hand, men reported regretting the lack of time they have with family, despite there being no significant difference in the number of professional hours between the two sexes.
Women Are More Likely to Work Their Careers Around Loved Ones Than Men
The Merrill Lynch and Age Wave survey found that women are far more likely than men to work their careers around children. Today, many couples report sharing parental duties and divvying up childcare and household tasks, but in cases where one partner handles more, it is eight times more likely to be the mother.
Caring for sick or elderly family members also largely falls to women, and it can affect their careers, finances, and well-being. While companies have gotten better about acknowledging and accommodating childcare, many could offer more support and flexibility to their employees taking care of adults, as well.
Spouses of Male Physicians Are More Likely to Stay at Home
Physicians marry other physicians at a high rate. However, in cases where only one partner is a physician, men tend to have more help at home for childcare or elder care than their female counterparts. In fact, one study found that out of all physicians surveyed, nearly half of the spouses of male physicians stopped working professionally, versus 9% of spouses of female physicians.
Because female physicians are more likely to have partners who are employed full-time, they tend to perform more work within the home than male physicians. This leads to increased time pressures and fewer opportunities for self-care.
On average, women who are employed and whose partners also work perform an additional two hours of work at home per day, an increase three times higher than that reported by men whose partner's work. The domestic work of men in these exact circumstances only increases by an average of 40 minutes.
Working Moms Are More Likely to Experience Burnout
The World Health Organization recently added workplace burnout as a syndrome to the International Classification of diseases. The condition is classified as "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Working mothers are 28% more likely to experience burnout than working fathers, they report. When you do the math, that means there are 2.35 million additional cases of burnout in the U.S. due to the unequal demands of home and work placed on working mothers.
Burnout is exceptionally high among medical professionals, and more female physicians experience it than male physicians. Many cite overwhelming bureaucratic tasks and long working hours as the main reasons for their burnout. Some symptoms may include fatigue, cynicism, lack of motivation, headaches, chest tightness, stomachaches, nausea, hair loss, and increased crying.
Normalizing and Advocating for Work-Life Integration
Although women make up an increasing percentage of the physician workforce, they face challenges as they continue to take primary responsibility for childcare and domestic duties. They are torn between their careers and families and often feel inadequate in both roles. To combat this, additional work is needed to identify strategies to address burnout.
For example, improving the functionality of electronic health records, increasing a physician's control over their work schedule, or utilizing virtual scribes can help alleviate burnout for both male and female physicians. More gender-specific interventions, such as improving family leave policies and incorporating development programs designed to enhance career satisfaction, are also remarkable ways to support women in medicine as they navigate the complexities of motherhood and their professional life.
Patients benefit when the medical workforce includes the most promising physicians in our society. As such, we need both women and men in the medical workforce. The medical field must continue to look for ways to alleviate the common challenges many female physicians face. If not, we will continue to see high rates of burnout and increased turnover in the field of medicine.
Physicians Angels is the industry's first Virtual Scribe company, providing real-time documentation directly into the physician's EMR, along with Virtual Back Office services. Our services save the physician an average of 10 hours per week, thereby improving patient throughput and contributing to a better work/life balance for the physician and office staff. To learn more, visit physiciansangels.com or contact us.