Female healthcare workers are exhausted. On the frontlines of work and home, we need a circuit breaker
A/Prof Nada Hamad (Chair of St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney’s Women in Medicine Group) - Women’s Agenda 27 Oct 2021
Going into healthcare is a calling and vocation. The ability to support another human being during a time of need, vulnerability, and fear is an indescribable privilege. As healthcare workers we experience pain, heartbreak, joy and triumph with our patients every day. We have a window into the human condition that frames our own lives and shapes our perspective on the world.
Women are incredibly effective in a crisis. This is why most people call their wife, mother, or sister when they are sick. We see this every day in medicine. We pull up our sleeves and get to work no matter the job. Throughout Australia’s COVID crisis, the healthcare workforce has been predominantly female, including half the state and territory Chief Health Officers.
As the pandemic waxes and wanes, female healthcare workers are exhausted and losing steam. We have been asked to do more, with less time and less resources, for more people. Of course, this is not unexpected in a pandemic.
Our working day is complicated by longer hours, a myriad of virtual technology platforms, the heat and discomfort of PPE, and treating patients with the ever-looming threat of COVID. We trust public health measures and strategies to maintain services for our patients and we do our part. Nevertheless, the goalposts have constantly shifted as the pandemic has twisted and turned. Over time this juggle has taken its toll. Add to this the unpredictable nature of spot outbreaks and workforce depletion due to COVID exposures, and the mental load becomes almost unbearable.
Physicians are at higher risk of suicide than the general population. The risk is even higher for female physicians and the rates of physician burnout have increased during the pandemic. An international case study of nurse suicide showed an increase in media reporting during the peak of the pandemic internationally.
The pressures at work are hard enough but the surge in homelife responsibilities for women during the pandemic has been the tipping point for many of us. The mental load of being a mother or carer occupies an extraordinary amount of bandwidth at the best of times. Annabel Crabb aptly called it a “cloud of mosquitos of tiny responsibilities” on the 7.30 series Why Women are Angry.
Now factor in the impact of the pandemic and lockdown life – home schooling for those of us with children – and it has been enough to paralyse the best of us. The perpetual fear of accidentally bringing COVID home to parents or vulnerable family members and young children not yet eligible for vaccination weighs excruciatingly on the mind.
Personally, one of my challenges has been managing my childrens’ anxiety around COVID. My 7-year-old daughter’s scepticism and rebuttal to my attempts at reassurance are something I deal with every day.
“Mummy, I know you said if I got COVID it would be like a cold, but why would the world be going so crazy if it wasn’t serious and could kill you?”
So, every day I’ve found positive and reassuring things to say while struggling to hide my growing exhaustion. Like many women, I have had to find new ways to support their social lives by organising endless zoom playdates with equally harried parents. I’ve pre-emptively ordered various essentials online so they arrived when they were needed for that school project or presentation; prioritised endless household chores so that the family was not drowning in unwashed laundry and dishes at the end of a long day at work. All the while tuning out the all too familiar song in the background “mummy, mummy, mummy….”.
And now the return to school in NSW and Victoria raises more challenges as we prepare for a new normal. We have to be vigilant with any symptoms and be prepared to keep kids at home or even quarantine in the event of COVID contacts.
There is no doubt that women have been hit harder by COVID economically and we are privileged in the healthcare sector to have been somewhat protected from these losses.
We are willing and able to serve but additional consideration needs to be given to the increasing and unsustainable load being placed on female health workers, with no additional support.
COVID-19 is not over, and as lockdowns in NSW and Victoria are relaxed, social distancing fades, mask wearing becomes a little less disciplined, and borders open, virus transmission rates will go back up. Even with Australia’s high vaccination rate, hospitalisations will likely go up with them.
As many celebrate a sense of normalcy, health care workers and our vulnerable and immunocompromised patients are still bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Without a circuit breaker this load will become untenable.
We need to think of ways to support women in the healthcare workforce so they can continue serving the public without risking their personal wellbeing or that of their families.
While universal free childcare and closing the gender pay gap are certainly long-term goals, in the short-term being mindful of women’s responsibilities and asking if they have capacity to do more before making them do so is the least we can do.