Women in Healthcare: Easing the Burden

Today kicks off Women’s History Month, a month dedicated to “commemorating and encouraging the study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” And next week, March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day focused on celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness about discrimination, and taking action to drive gender parity.

But these March observances represent one month and one day, out of many. And we know that year-round, organizations depend on female-identifying workers for both emotional and cognitive labor, in addition to their explicit daily responsibilities.

COVID-19 workforce burnout was just the beginning

Take job representation and performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. 

Across industries, women are well-represented in roles that have been deemed essential. In fact, the United States Census Bureau found that women hold 42% of the nation’s full-time, year-round jobs designated as essential, while also making up a majority of essential workers in specific fields like education, healthcare, personal care, and sales and office occupations. 

In the difficult timeline of a global pandemic, the additional emotional and cognitive labor taken on by women contributed to increasing amounts of burnout, across all industries. But COVID-19 was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to burnout and women. In Deloitte’s Women at Work 2022 study, more 50% of the 5,000 women surveyed reported higher stress levels than the year prior, and nearly as many reported feeling burned out.

Results from a Future Forum survey show similar numbers, with 46% of women saying they feel burned out. 

Healthcare has a female-heavy workforce

Both the increased workload and increasingly frequent burnout hold true in the helping professions, including healthcare, where the majority of front-line workers also identify as female. And three years from the beginning of the COVID-pandemic, the feelings of overburden have turned into an unprecedented workforce crisis

In 2021, we saw record breaking nurse turnover and vacancy rates. In addition, the median turnover rate for bedside registered nurses was 18%, an increase from 14.8% in 2020. And the healthcare industry has realized that the cavalry isn’t coming. This nursing shortage is expected to persist for at least another 10 years. There are more than 195,000 openings for registered nurses projected through 2031 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

And again, in healthcare women are more likely to bear the brunt. A 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that women comprised more than 77% of healthcare workers with direct patient contact and 84% of those working in long-term care settings. Furthermore, according to the United States Census Bureau, nearly 87% of those in crucial healthcare occupations like registered nurses are women. 

The import of women in these fields is clear. But, with the healthcare industry on the frontlines during a global pandemic, the brunt of increasing care requests and requirements has also fallen heavily on healthcare’s female workers.

Women in healthcare are increasingly burnt out

Women working in healthcare have experienced a disproportionate amount of burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic, since they have a higher likelihood of shouldering at-home family care, including meal preparation, shopping, and other family activities. Add to this the stress from their daily healthcare workplace — stress brought about both from caring for their patients and working to avoid infection themselves.

Medscape’s Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2023: Restoring Personal and Professional Satisfaction, about 63% of women physicians were burned out, versus 46% of male physicians, an increase from 53% and 36%, respectively. And, in an industry where staff burnout has a very real effect on both patients and providers, women are bearing the brunt of these stressors.

Digital health technology can lift some of the burden

It doesn’t have to be like this. While healthcare workers will always be the human heart of care, there are ways for digital health technology to ease some of the burden, scaling their reach and allowing them to return to practicing at the top of their licenses.

One such option can be found in in-room patient education solutions. This type of digital patient engagement tool alleviates the administrative burden from staff, putting tasks like meal ordering, entertainment, service requests, and environmental controls in the hands of patients. This automation of routine tasks and documentation for staff enables healthcare organizations to support patients and families to be active participants in their care without adding to staff and clinician workloads.  

By empowering patients to manage aspects of their hospital stay through consumer-first digital technology, and providing in-depth patient education around conditions, medications, and more, the clinical team is able to dedicate more time providing care and less time on non-clinical tasks. This means a renewed staff focus on higher value activities, such as teach-back — all the while, knowing that technology can act as a true support, rather than just another requirement. 

The bottom line

Where female-identified staff and clinicians are struggling, in a woman-heavy industry like healthcare, there are some key technological solutions that can be put in place to help lift the administrative and otherwise rote burdens and enable them to spend more time caring for their patients in the way they do best.

This Women’s History Month, let’s support our healthcare workers – of any gender – in every way we can. From headcount to digital health technology, providing resources and support will go a long way toward leveling the playing field for women in healthcare and creating a gender equal world.