Female professionals suffering domestic abuse feel socially and professionally isolated

April 4, 2021

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Female professionals suffering domestic abuse feel socially and professionally isolated

Domestic abuse has been increasing—up 70% in Europe according to the WHO and 100% in parts of the US according to studies last year.  It has been called the silent pandemic. In in-depth surveys I did with professionals in Australia pre-COVID, domestic abuse was responsible for an alarming break-down in marriages.

The stresses of COVID with its attendant change in work routines, have, according to recent studies, made things much worse.

A new study shows how the increase in domestic abuse is affecting one particular class of professionals: Female doctors. Those who suffer domestic abuse can feel unable to get help due to perceptions that it “should not happen to a doctor” and a judgmental culture in medical settings. I have found that the same is true in law and other professions.

According to the researchers, victim-survivors who work as doctors often do not feel able to talk about abuse confidentially and fear the consequences of reporting it.

The researchers interviewed twenty-one female doctors who had previously left an abusive relationship about their experience of domestic abuse, barriers they faced when seeking help, and the impact on their work. The findings have been published in the British Journal of General Practice.

What the researchers say: “Domestic abuse is a huge problem for women from all walks of life, but I was surprised to hear through conversations how prevalent it seemed to be in the medical profession,” said the lead author of the study. “Despite this, very little has been written about doctors who are victims, all the research seems to focus on how doctors help other victims of domestic abuse. So, I wanted to find out more about how it affected these women at work and their experiences of seeking support.”

Several participants expressed embarrassment and felt that, as doctors, they “should have known better” and that they are “supposed to be intelligent, strong women who are not vulnerable.” This could also lead them to question how they would be able to help their patients whilst feeling as though they could not look after themselves.

Despite the perception that it should not happen to them, many of the victim-survivors said that the nature of their job actually made them more vulnerable to persistent domestic abuse. Because they work hard every day to resolve problems for others, it was natural for this determination to ‘keep going’ to continue in their personal lives. For some participants, routinely dealing with difficult and demanding colleagues normalized the poor treatment they experienced at home, causing them to persist with relationships even after they had become abusive.

I have found the same thing talking to female lawyers, teachers, and other professionals in a variety of countries.

The study identified a number of barriers to disclosing and seeking help, the main concerns being confidentiality, for example having to speak to health professionals who they know personally or professionally.

Many participants said that not fitting the stereotype of a female suffering domestic abuse caused disbelief from health professionals from whom they sought help as a patient. Some victim-survivors felt that health or social care professionals were quick to shut the conversations down, whilst some were threatened with being reported to the General Medical Council (GMC).

Problems in disclosure were particularly prominent when the abusive partner was also a health professional, which often deterred the victim-survivor from reporting the abuse through fear that they would not be believed due to their partner’s status.

A culture of presenteeism in medical settings and perception that weakness is not tolerated also made it difficult to get the time off needed to access domestic abuse services during working hours.

When victim-survivors were able to speak to health professionals who would listen and validate that they were experiencing domestic abuse, it made a huge difference. Peer support groups were also extremely valuable in helping them understand that they were not alone and inspiring them to take action.

Speaking about how the medical profession can support its workers, the lead author said, “A designated confidential service for doctor victim-survivors would give them access to support without the risk of meeting their patients and colleagues.

“The medical profession also needs to change its culture so that its workers feel that they can talk to each other more and that they are being looked after as well as their patients.”

So, what? This is interesting as it parallels so many of the findings from my own research in legal and other professions. The way we organize work, the demands on professionals for constant change, the depersonalization of work (who is left to talk to?) and the overall societal and professional work stress is completely unsustainable.

Disempowered, stressed-out men take their anger and frustrations out on the only ones weaker than themselves—their partners and children. Until we completely rethink work, and society, the situation will only get worse. The situation of female doctors is tragic—but they are by no means alone.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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