Women, Work Stress and Hidden Challenges

October 24, 2010 by Ken Nowack

“Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness” 

Richard Carlson

News alert (in case you might have not known already) — Work-related stress (high work load, low control over decision making) can be a direct cause of depression and anxiety and other emotional health symptoms for all employees and particularly for women. A recent finding in Psychological Medicine comes from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has followed a group of 1000 children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, New Zealand throughout their lives. The study subjects have been assessed at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 26, and most recently at the age of 32, in 2004-05.

The study included 406 women and 485 men. All were asked at age 32 about their perceptions of work stress. In general, men reported higher psychological job demands, lower social support, and higher physical job demands than women.

High psychological job demands, such as long hours, heavy workload, or poor relations with one’s boss, were found to be significantly associated with clinical depression, anxiety, or both in women and men.

It was found that women who reported high psychological job demands (using a standard approach to measuring work load and decisional control over things on the job), such as working long hours, working under pressure or without clear direction, were 75 per cent more likely to suffer from clinical depression or general anxiety disorder than women who reported the lowest level of psychological job demands.

Men with high psychological job demands were 80 per cent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety disorders than men with lower demands. Men with low levels of social support at work were also found to be at increased risk of depression, anxiety or both.

This study shows that high levels of workplace stress may be an important contributor to common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. These disorders certainly contribute directly to employer costs for medical claims, absenteeism, presenteeism and disability.

It’s seems so easy to just begin to suggest individually based remedies to help employees cope more effectively with stress on the job. However, a recent review of stress management interventions suggests that individually based approaches, without targeting the organization, are unlikely to have sustain impact over time1.

Our own research suggests that 40% to 60% of all employees express a moderately high level of stress on the job. Our work and non-work lives are very permeable with most of us taking work stress home and home stress to our job2. The contributors to stress are varied and is is logical that we take work stress home with us as well as import the pressures from family challenges back to the job3.

We were interested in seeing whether results from our own personal stress, resilience and health risk appraisal called StressScan would help to identify what professional working employees reported being stressed about and how it compares to the recent 2008 APA survey. StressScan measures 14 psychosocial scales that have been shown to be associated with diverse individual (e.g., job burnout, depression, physical health) and organizational (e.g., absenteeism) outcomes.

Stress is conceptualized as the experience of major and minor irritants, annoyances, and frustrations (hassles) of daily living over a three-month period. This brief measure of work/life stress was based upon factor analytic research of the original Hassles scale4. StressScan measures the extent to which respondents experience daily hassles in six distinct factor areas including: 1) Health; 2) Work; 3) Personal Finances; 4) Family; 5) Social Obligations; and 6) Environmental and World concerns (6 items).

We analyzed differences by gender across these six StressScan scales (ANOVA) using requests for free trials for this assessment over the last few years (N=149). In general, women reported significantly higher levels of stress compared to males (mean for woman = 16.48 versus mean for men = 15.35, p < .01). No other significant differences were found across gender for quality/quantity of sleep, social support network (availability, use and satisfaction) or happiness.

We found only two stress categories were rated as significantly more challenging by women compared to their male counterparts (p < .01) using a 1 to 5 scale where 1 = Never, 3 = Sometimes and 5 = Always):

  • Financial Stressors (mean for women 3.15/mean for men 2.72)
  • Family Stressors (mean for women 3.08/mean for men 2.70)

However, we found no significant differences in self-reported work, health, social or environmental stressors. In our sample, professional working women continue to report more hassles and life challenges around family issues and finances than men (note: we don’t gather marital status on our demographics but this would be useful to know in analyzing these differences). These findings support a recent American Psychological Association (APA) stress survey as well as confirm that women may indeed still perceive they have two full-time jobs–one at work and the other when they leave.

Recent 2010 data from the Center for Work-Life Policy found that 89 percent of women who took “off-ramps” in their career want to return to work.  However, 60 percent of them don’t succeed.  It would appear from our data that women have experience some unique financial and family pressures relative to their male counterparts and heavy workload, low social support and low control over decision making is equally harmful to both.

I guess for both men and women, it’s still difficult to have it all….Be well….

[tags] stress, burnout, job demands, anxiety, depression, workload, pressure, ken nowack, envisia, kenneth nowack [/tags]

  1. Nowack, K. (2000). Occupational stress management: Effective or not?. In P. Schnall, K. Belkie, P. Landensbergis, &; D. Baker (Eds.), Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, Hanley and Belfus, Inc., Philadelphia, PA., Vol 15, No. 1, pp. 231-233 []
  2. Nowack, K. (2006). Optimising Employee Resilience: Coaching to Help Individuals Modify Lifestyle. Stress News, International Journal of Stress Management, Volume 18, 9-12 []
  3. Nowack, K. (2008). Coaching for Stress: StressScan. Editor: Jonathan Passmore, Psychometrics in Coaching, Association for Coaching, UK, pp. 254-274 []
  4. AD Kanner, A, Coyne, J., Schaefer, C.; & Lazarus, R. (1981). Comparison of two modes of stress measurement: Daily hassles and uplifts. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 4, 1573-3521 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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  1. Love the quote and the picture. This is a very interesting piece…thanks.

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