The Impact of Work Hour Restrictions in Surgery

Surgery is a time demanding job and that is indeed one of the reasons cited by female and male medical students alike of why they are not interested in going into surgery. While many people argue that long work hours are necessary to avoid frequent handoffs of care and loss of information, others point out that long work hours are detrimental for both physical and mental health and can lead to additional errors.

A study speaking to this issue comes from the US, where Matthew Hutter and colleagues investigated the effects of mandated restrictions in the work hours of surgical residents. Notably, we are not talking about restrictions that would make their work hours “normal” by any regular-work-person standards. Their work was restricted to 80 hours a week. But even so, they found effects after the changes were implemented including decreased burnout and increased quality of life. However, participants also voiced concerns about reduced quality of care.

These issues are of course also important for part-time work, which seems to be an option that many women in surgery would like to opt for. So how can the same benefits be achieved while maintaining a high quality of care for patients?

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Work-Life-Balance and Burnout in Female and Male Hospital Doctors

As women continue to carry a larger part of the responsibilities regarding housekeeping and childcare, it is not surprising that they generally find it harder to achieve satisfactory levels of work-life-balance in occupations that are generally associated with long working hours such as medicine. A recent survey study looked at how the perception of hospital doctors’ work-life-balance was related to burnout and intentions to quit their job and how whether this depended on gender.

The author found that work-life-balance was the most important predictor of burnout and that support from superiors and co-workers as well as working in a family friendly environment significantly lowered burnout. Interestingly, support from co-workers was the most important factor for female doctors, whereas support from one’s superiors and working in a family friendly work environment was more important for male doctors. Similarly, work-life-balance and support for co-workers were related to female but not male doctors’ intentions to quit, while working on a rota working pattern was predictive of male but not female doctors’ intentions to quit. Overall, women also reported higher levels of burnout.

This is interesting, as it shows that reducing burnout and retaining skilled doctors, might be achieved quite differently for men and women. It also shows that the fact that women are still responsible for the majority of domestic tasks is reflected in their higher need for a work-life-balance and that this issue needs to be addressed, both at and outside of the workplace.