Open Access Research article

Show what you know and deal with stress yourself: a qualitative interview study of medical interns’ perceptions of stress and gender

Petra Verdonk1*, Viktoria Räntzsch2, Remko de Vries3 and Inge Houkes4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medical Humanities, VU University Medical Centre, EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, School of Medical Sciences, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

2 Clinipace AG, Volketswil, Switzerland

3 Cormel IT Services, Sittard, The Netherlands

4 Department of Social Medicine, Maastricht University, School Caphri, Maastricht, The Netherlands

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:96  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-96

Published: 17 May 2014



Medical students report high stress levels and in particular, the clinical phase is a demanding one. The field of medicine is still described as having a patriarchal culture which favors aspects like a physicians’ perceived certainty and rationalism. Also, the Effort-Recovery Model explains stress as coming from a discrepancy between job demands, job control, and perceived work potential. Gendered differences in stress are reported, but not much is known about medical interns’ perceptions of how gender plays in relation to stress. The aim of this study is to explore how medical interns experience and cope with stress, as well as how they reflect on the gendered aspects of stress.


In order to do this, we have performed a qualitative study. In 2010–2011, semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with seventeen medical interns across all three years of the Masters programme (6 male, 11 female) at a Dutch medical school. The interview guide is based on gender theory, the Effort-Recovery Model, and empirical literature. Transcribed interviews have been analyzed thematically.


First, stress mainly evolves from having to prove one’s self and show off competencies and motivation (“Show What You Know…”). Second, interns seek own solutions for handling stress because it is not open for discussion (… “And Deal With Stress Yourself”). Patient encounters are a source of pride and satisfaction rather than a source of stress. But interns report having to present themselves as ‘professional and self-confident’, remaining silent about experiencing stress. Female students are perceived to have more stress and to study harder in order to live up to expectations.


The implicit message interns hear is to remain silent about insecurities and stress, and, in particular, female students might face disadvantages. Students who feel less able to manifest the ‘masculine protest’ may benefit from a culture that embraces more collaborative styles, such as having open conversation about stress.

Gender; Stress; Interns; Rotations; Medical education; Coping