Among working women, the rate of suicide is three times higher among those in health care profession than women in other professions, according to new research by the University of Melbourne and Deakin University.
Lead author, Dr Allison Milner of Deakin University found the age-standardized rate of suicide for female health professionals was 6.4 per 100,000 person-years, while nurses and midwives were even higher at 8.2. The average suicide rate for women in other professions was 2.8 per 100,000.
Researchers said they also found male nurses and midwives had close to double the rate of suicide compared with men in other professions. Risk of suicide among men was overall higher than women, at 14.9 per 100 000.
The study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, marked the first national analysis of suicide by healthcare professionals.
Researchers analyzed 10,000 suicide cases from 2001 to 2012 and found that 3.8% of all suicides were by health professionals.
The study found medical professionals are exposed to higher rates of stress than other professions. High job demands due to long working hours, lower control of what is done, work-family conflicts, and fears of making mistakes are a few other contributig factors.
These stresses are associated with the development of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, often worsened by exposure to trauma through contact with patients and their families.
Yet female health professionals also experience additional sources of "gender role stress", such as pressures to undertake childcare and household roles, the study found.
Dr Allison Milner said female doctors in male-dominated fields continue to feel hindered by barriers to their career advancement, including workplace bullying and harassment.
"It is definitely more complicated than just being a woman. But I think the thing about females is they often experience pressures outside of work as well. And [medicine] is a more masculine environment, usually oriented around work hours suited to men which are less flexible," Dr Milner said.
According to Dr Milner, health professionals' ready access to prescriptive medicines proved a highly significant factor, with women statistically more likely to commit suicide by drug overdose.
The authors suggested occupational gender pressures may also be contributing factors, as the nursing and midwifery professions are organized to reinforce traditionally feminine characteristics of caring and support.
"Qualitative research has found that some male nurses experience anxiety about the perceived stigma associated with their non-traditional career choice," they wrote.
There has been research about 15 years ago that had suggested that female doctors in particular had an elevated rate of suicide, this was conducted in the UK and there's also been some smaller studies in Australia.
Dr Milner said their hope was that peak medical bodies would use the published study to push for new workplace suicide prevention strategies in hospitals and clinics.