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Overwhelmed and undervalued: Pandemic highlights struggles faced by women physicians

Specific strategies need to be developed to provide support to those providing unpaid care work and emotional labor alongside medical expertise. These might include improved access to childcare and mental health resources, among others.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny from Unsplash.com

Despite being essential workers, women physicians’ struggle with work-life imbalance has only become exacerbated during the ongoing pandemic. A Simon Fraser University-led study of Vancouver area women physicians found that most felt their pandemic experience is substantively different than that of male physicians—given their primary responsibility for unpaid care work at home and ongoing, pre-pandemic gender inequity.

The study, recently published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, cautions that disproportionate levels of COVID-19-related burn-out present a “real risk.”

The study suggests specific strategies need to be developed to provide support to those providing unpaid care work and emotional labor alongside medical expertise. These might include improved access to childcare and mental health resources, among others.

Researchers also point to the need for greater representation of women within medical and health system leadership, and recognition of women’s crucial contributions at home and work.

“Women physicians noted their experience of COVID-19 was affected in distinct and negative ways by an increased double shift, which they linked both to pre-pandemic assumptions (within families and communities) that women would absorb private care deficits at their own cost and to the lack of supportive health systems,” says SFU health sciences assistant professor Julia Smith, whose research team included several professional health care workers. A limited sample size of 27 women physicians in the Vancouver area participated in focus groups during the pandemic’s first wave.

“Health system leadership was identified as continuing to reflect a masculine normative experience wherein the personal and professional can be separated or balanced,” she noted. “Lack of consideration for women’s experience and needs was intensified by lack of consultation during the emergency response. Women felt their leadership contributions were often overlooked or co-opted, and the emotional support they provided undervalued.”

In response, Smith says women physicians have sought inspiration and support from other women leaders and peers, drawing on wellness resources.

The study confirmed previous research that shows in Canada, while men have taken on more unpaid care work in the context of COVID-10, women still continue to shoulder the majority. “Even though women physicians hold a degree of relative privilege, participants describe being overwhelmed by care work in ways they felt male physicians were not.”

While earlier studies have documented women healthcare workers’ increased risk of burnout and mental health challenges, the latest SFU study suggests unpaid care work at home and emotional labor at work are determinants exacerbated by a continuing lack of recognition and support within health care systems.

“The study highlights the need for greater investments in diversity, equity and inclusions strategies within the medical profession and pandemic response,” says Lynn Straatman, clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. Straatman, who co-authored the study, also serves as co-chair of the Physician Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at Vancouver Coastal Health.

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