High burnout levels in women specialists in their 30s prompted research finding women feeling judged if they don’t focus on medicine at the expense of all else.

The study conducted by Dr Charlotte Chambers, Principal Analyst at the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS), involved in-depth interviews with 14 female specialists across a range of specialities. The interview subjects were all aged in their 30s, some of whom were experiencing burnout.

It followed on from the results of the 2016 ASMS study into burnout that found more than 70 per cent of senior women doctors in their 30s were likely to be suffering from very high levels of burnout.

Chambers said women at this age had typically just finished their gruelling specialist training and at the same time were making difficult decisions on whether or not to have to children.

But she said the interviews indicated that the women were not experiencing burnout from trying to do too much, or because they weren’t strong enough to be doctors, “but because their efforts continue to be judged by outdated notions of dedication and toughness”.

She said she had been struck by how many of the women talked about 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.”

“They are at risk of burnout because medicine continues to be a form of work based on ideals of unencumbered workers who can immerse themselves in medicine at the expense of all else,” said Chambers.

One interviewee said: “I feel like there’s a bit of a culture in surgery… the old guys [think] ‘we did it… we walked through the snow in our bare feet, so you can do it’ but… why not try and make things better for everyone else?”

Another told Chambers that on paper it looked like she had everything going for her and couldn’t be at risk of burnout: “It looks like I’m just not strong enough, like my threshold’s really low… I could give the appearance of… a weakling who whines.”

And another said: “I don’t think I know a single woman that doesn’t feel guilty about one thing at times … you don’t wanna be seen as slacking off, because I know that I’m only part-time and I wanna spend time with my kids.”

Chambers said working and training schedules might need to be changed to accommodate more part-time positions. This would require structural changes supported by both district health boards and professional colleges.

She added that while the pressures were most acute on women, younger male specialists also had different family responsibilities and attitudes to those of older generations. Her research was presented today at the ASMS Annual Conference in Wellington.

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