Women doctors seeing more work-life conflict, mental stress due to COVID-19 pandemic

Pandemic’s impact could worsen gender divide in income and career prospects, study finds.

Among its other consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic may be harming the mental health and career prospects of women physicians, especially those with children and physician spouses, a new study finds.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looks at gender differences in work-family responsibilities and emotional well-being among 215 early-career physicians since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that about one in four of the women surveyed were primarily responsible for providing childcare or schooling compared with less than 1% of the men. Similarly, 31.4% of women said they were likely to perform the majority of day-to-day household tasks, whereas only 7.2% of men were taking those on.

The gender disparities were even greater in households with two full-time physicians, where 45% of women and 5% of men performed most of the household tasks, and 28.6% of women were responsible for schooling and childcare versus 0% of men.

In addition, women were nearly twice as likely as men to work from home (41% versus 22%) and were more apt to voluntarily reduce work hours (19.4% versus 9.4%.) since the start of the pandemic. Here too, the differences were even more stark among two-physician households with children. Among that cohort, 65% of women and 34.6% of men. worked from home, while 25.7% of women and 2.6% of men reduced their work hours.

In terms of mental health, the survey showed mothers scoring substantially higher on surveys measuring symptoms of anxiety and depression. Among survey participants who weren’t parents, however, there was no significant difference in work/family conflicts or depressive or anxiety scores.

The authors note that even before the pandemic, parenthood often meant reduced work hours and income for women doctors, along with greater challenges in balancing work and family demands. The arrival of COVID-19 has exacerbated these trends, however, causing more women doctors to reduce their hours and/or work from home, with possible career impacts.

“Early evidence from the pandemic suggests that women experience more negative professional consequences than men under work-from-home conditions and lower productivity,” the authors say. “Even short-term adjustments can have…. long-term repercussions as they may lead to lower earnings and negatively impact opportunities for promotion, further exacerbating gender inequalities in compensation and advancement.”

The authors say that mitigating these potential effects of the pandemic will require institutional and public policy solutions. Institutions need to focus on recruiting, retaining and advancing women and ensuring that cost-cutting measures and career advancement metrics do not disproportionately penalize them.

At the public policy level, the authors call for greater support for family care needs, such as childcare and paid family leave, along with wellness programs tailored for physician mothers. A shift in the culture around work-family balance issues is also needed, such as normalizing the use of sick days and parental leave among male physicians in order to weaken gender biases in work and family expectations.

The study, “Experiences of Work-Family Conflict and Mental Health Symptoms by Gender Among Physician Parents during the COVID-19 Pandemic” was published November 12 on JAMA Network Open.